Utah will get more than $309 million from 50-state agreement with opioid companies

Deal comes out of thousands of lawsuits filed in wake of opioid epidemic.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes (seen here on July 7, 2021) announced on July 22, 2021, that Utah will receive more than $309 million in a 50-state agreement with major distributors of opioids and one manufacturer.

The state of Utah will receive more than $309 million out of a $26 billion agreement with companies that make and distribute opioids — for their part in “fueling the opioid epidemic.”

“This is a reckoning long overdue,” said Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, one of the state officials who reacted to the agreement in a news conference Thursday at the Utah Capitol. “It has taken us years of hard-fought litigation, investigation, prosecution and negotiation to arrive at this landmark agreement. But that is nothing compared to the years of suffering from so many throughout our state.”

The companies that are part of the agreement are the nation’s three major pharmaceutical distributors — Cardinal, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen — along with Johnson & Johnson, which manufactured and marketed opioids. On the other side of the deal are all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and five U.S. territories, all of whom are in line to receive some of the $26 billion settlement, once it is finalized.

Utah will get 1.1889% of the $26 billion — a total of $309,114,000, paid out over 18 years. Shares are determined by a formula based on the state’s population and “the impact of the crisis” on each state, including the number of overdose deaths, residents with substance-use disorders, and the number of opioids prescribed, according to a news release from Gov. Spencer Cox’s office.

Cox’s administration will work with the Utah Legislature to figure out how that money will be spent, said Margaret Busse, executive director of the Utah Department of Commerce. The bulk of it will go toward treatment and prevention of opioid addiction, the governor’s office said.

In 2018, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that Utah had a rate of 14.8 opioid-Involved overdose deaths per 100,000 people — coming in 24th out of 39 states studied. That year alone, Utah had 437 drug overdose deaths that involved opioids, while Utah providers wrote 57.1 opioid prescriptions for every 100 people, well above the national average of 51.4 prescriptions per 100 people.

In June, a public health expert reported during a Utah County Commission work session that opioid abuse was on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic, as numbers were leveling off before 2020.

The opioid epidemic, Reyes said, “is robbing us of lives — more lives lost to overdose deaths than even things like breast cancer. … And that’s huge. And we all need to come together, as we have up to this point. We are doing everything that we can.”

States and territories have 30 days to sign onto the deal, and local governments will have up to 150 days to join in, the governor’s office said. The agreement will resolve years of investigations and litigation over what Cox’s office called “the companies’ roles in creating and fueling the opioid epidemic.” That includes nearly 4,000 lawsuits filed in federal and state courts.

Those lawsuits include litigation in Utah’s Third District Court that accused distributors of “negligence that allowed large amounts of addictive painkillers to be sold illegally, while J&J was accused of downplaying the risk of opioid addiction in its marketing campaigns,” according to a statement Thursday by two Salt Lake County leaders, Mayor Jenny Wilson and District Attorney Sim Gill.

Gill said his office is “working diligently to make sure [the county receives] our fair share” of the funds.

“The money received would help expand Salt Lake County’s programs supporting treatment and care of those impacted,” Wilson said. “I am especially pleased the drug companies who profited from this crisis are being held accountable. This will change their predatory practices going forward.”

Among the changes to industry practices, the governor’s release said, are court orders to the three distributors to launch a “centralized independent clearinghouse” that will give the companies and state regulators data on where and how often drugs are shipped, “eliminating blind spots in the current systems.” Also, the distributors will have to monitor data to detect and report suspicious orders, and cut off pharmacies’ ability to receive shipments when their orders are suspicious.

As part of the agreement, Johnson & Johnson must stop selling opioids for the next 10 years. J&J also must share clinical trial data with the Yale Open Data Access (YODA) Project, a massive research project at the Connecticut university. And J&J agrees to stop funding or giving grants to third parties that promote opioids, and must stop lobbying on opioid-related activities.

Negotiating such a deal is challenging, said Daniel O’Bannon, director of the Utah Division of Consumer Protection, because so many states and territories are involved.

“It’s scrutinizing the law, it’s dealing with decision points, negotiating with various stakeholders,” O’Bannon said. “It’s a tremendous effort. So the results we see today are a result of that effort, in no small part because of the hard work of this team.”