Since Sean Reyes took office as Utah’s attorney general in 2013, there have been well over 1,400 residents who have died from opioid-related overdoses.
Over the past year, Reyes has been prodded by the Legislature, pre-empted by one county after another, and even called out by House Speaker Greg Hughes to take a lead in protecting Utahns from this scourge.
Finally, his office decided to sue one opioid manufacturer — Purdue Pharma Inc. — a first step that comes far later than it should have.
Utah consistently has had the highest rates of opioid-related fatalities in the West.
A third of emergency room visits are opioid-related, and county jails are being turned into de facto detox centers. In 2016, 466 Utahns died from opioid-related overdoses — far outnumbering the lives destroyed by human trafficking, where Reyes has focused so much of his time and energy.
The counties that were on the front lines got tired of waiting and took matters into their own hands: First Summit County filed a lawsuit, then Tooele, then Salt Lake. Cache, Utah, Davis, Washington and Weber have said they will do so soon.
For Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, a pivotal moment came when an county employee told him about her son who had been in an accident, got hooked on a painkiller and began a downward spiral, ending up shooting heroin on the street until he became another statistic.
“I was tired of waiting and tired of doing what we can and feeling like we’re just putting fingers in the dike, not beginning to address the root of the problem,” McAdams said. “It didn’t seem like the state was doing anything. It didn’t seem like they were even taking us seriously with respect to opioids … to really address the cost. Nothing was happening.”
Hughes, the House speaker, shared McAdams’ frustration and urged counties to lead out on lawsuits. The Utah Legislature passed a resolution calling on the attorney general to take action against opioid makers with just one dissenting vote out of 104 lawmakers. Reyes didn’t even attend the hearings on the resolution.
Reyes’ counterpoint is that his office is working with dozens of other states around the country to negotiate a global settlement — which is a valid pursuit. By not suing, he said in an interview, the state was able to obtain useful information from the drugmakers without the cost of hiring outside counsel and the delays of litigation.
“We didn’t need to file a year-and-a-half ago, because we were getting all the information we needed using the civil powers and the threat of criminal [action],” he said. “There’s not a single argument that I’ve heard that we’re in a worse position for not having filed and another state is in a better position.”
But Utah got most of the information it wanted from the drug companies late last year, so there was really no reason to wait.
Filing a lawsuit doesn’t preclude continued talks and can be done without hiring an outside firm, at least in the early stages. Indeed, the attorney general’s office has prepared a complaint against Purdue that it plans to file sometime around May 29.
It’s common for settlement talks to proceed after a lawsuit is filed and, if anything, turning up the heat shows the state is serious. It’s also the course of action attorneys general from half the states and hundreds of cities and counties have taken, yet settlement talks continue.
A federal judge in Cleveland is presiding over consolidated opioid cases and pushing dozens of lawyers on both sides to come to a resolution. But he’s also set a trial date for next March, providing incentive for a settlement.
And there’s a good reason for Utah to be a player in this litigation. The lawsuits filed in Summit and Salt Lake counties specifically name two Utah pain doctors — Perry Fine and Lynn Webster — as being among those who received millions of dollars from the opioid companies to allegedly prop up deceptive claims and downplay the risks of the drugs.
Attorneys for Fine and Webster have denied the allegations and insist their clients were forthright about the risks.
But the claims being made by the counties and by lawyers in other states about the conduct of those two and others go to the heart of the argument that the drug companies operated in bad faith to conceal the danger while thousands around the country lost their lives.
Look at the course Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, a Republican, took. Ohio and states all along the Ohio River have been among the hardest hit by the epidemic. The coroner in Dayton, Ohio, recently had to acquire a trailer to act as an overflow morgue because of opioid fatalities.
DeWine hoped for a settlement and participated in the talks, but became frustrated.
“The attorney general was not satisfied with the pace and progress of the multistate [talks], so we broke off of that and filed our own litigation,” his spokesman, Dan Tierney, told me. Ohio was the second state, behind Mississippi, to sue the drugmakers.
DeWine praised Utah and New York for joining the effort last week, saying it shows there is momentum building.
And he’s right. It’s good that Reyes’ office is finally taking action, even if it is only going after one company, Purdue, which he said has been the least cooperative in settlement talks.
Regardless of how Utah got to the point of suing, we’re here now, a positive step. Reyes should follow Florida’s lead and sue all of the opioid manufacturers — not just Purdue — and keep pressure on settlement talks. Likewise, the Legislature and the counties should keep pressure on Reyes.
Utah has paid a horrible price for the deceptive practices and disregard for human life over the past two decades. It should be at the forefront of holding them accountable, not bringing up the rear.