SALT LAKE CITY — Amid frustration among state lawmakers that Utah is moving too slowly on opioid litigation, the attorney general's office told a legislative committee Wednesday it would sue Big Pharma by the end of the month.
Members of the Judiciary Interim Committee also questioned whether Attorney General Sean Reyes has taken an aggressive enough public stance against the proliferation of addictive painkillers that claim the lives of more than two dozen Utahns a month.
"Convince me that it's a priority for the attorney general's office," Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, told two assistant attorneys general who appeared before the committee.
Spencer Austin, chief criminal deputy attorney general, assured lawmakers Reyes and his office have been on the case from the beginning, though "we're probably not telling our own story as well as we could."
"He is very actively involved and very concerned about the problem," Austin said. "He's pushing me hard to get it done."
Austin said Utah is filing a 10-day notice Wednesday of its intent to sue and would file a lawsuit in state court by the end of May.
"The question is do we file it in Salt Lake County or file it in another county," he said. "The situation changes from county to county. Some counties have a terrible problem, some counties don't."
Salt Lake, Summit and Tooele counties have already filed lawsuits, while Utah and Weber counties have declared they intend to do the same.
Filing a lawsuit, though, won't lead to an "instantaneous conclusion," Austin told lawmakers, adding the pharmaceutical industry has vast resources to fight in court for a long time.
McKell noted that Utah is consistently in the top 5 percent of opioid-related deaths per capita.
"If we're losing individuals in the top 5 percent, I hope our effort is reflective of that," he said.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, noted Reyes did not attend two hearings during the legislative session on a resolution lawmakers overwhelmingly passed urging him to "proceed with haste" to file a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors. Reyes did not attend Wednesday's committee meeting. Weiler said he was in China, adding Reyes seems to travel more than his predecessors.
"I'm one of those frustrated people that doesn’t understand why this isn’t moving faster," Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, said. "It looks like we're watching others then jumping on board. Why aren't we leading?"
Utah is part of a 41-state effort the past 18 months to negotiate a settlement with pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors. Six more states Tuesday joined the more than dozen states, including some involved in the negotiations, that have sued Big Pharma. Austin said the state has a leadership role in the discussions with distributors.
The Utah Attorney General's Office is seeking information from private law firms about handling the litigation, with inquiries due June 8. More than 75 firms have expressed interest, Austin said.
House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, noted that lawmakers' will to sue Big Pharma is clear.
"I don't know that there's a lot of confidence among many members of the Legislature that that's been heard by our attorney general," he said.
King told the members of the attorney general's office at the committee meeting that legislators want Reyes to take a high public profile on the issue.
"We want you to say to the citizens of the state of Utah, 'We're aggressively going after these folks,'" he said. "I think our attorney general could do a better job of sending that message himself."
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