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Utah pursuing opioid settlement while preparing for possible lawsuit against Big Pharma

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah continues to negotiate with Big Pharma over the proliferation of addictive painkillers, while preparing for a lawsuit if a settlement can't be reached.

The Utah Attorney General's Office is seeking information from private law firms about handling possible litigation.

"We are seeking outside counsel because we believe at the end of the day, we will not be able to resolve with all of the manufacturers and distributors," Spencer Austin, chief criminal deputy attorney general, said Tuesday at a Utah Opioid Task Force meeting.

"The request for proposal is done. It's sitting on the shelf. It's ready to go, but we have to add a couple of pieces to it that we hope we will get with the request for information," he said

Austin said the state is hopeful a law firm could be ready to go by the end of the summer should Attorney General Sean Reyes and Gov. Gary Herbert decide to file a lawsuit.

Utah is part of a 41-state effort the past 18 months to negotiate a settlement with pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors. So far, 15 states, including some involved in the negotiations, have sued Big Pharma.

Reyes said the request for information and proposals from law firms isn't a signal of any disinterest on the state's part for trying to resolve the issue through a settlement. He said an agreement would be ideal for the state and the counties.

"This is a backup in case we are forced to litigate," he said.

Salt Lake County filed a lawsuit last month against pharmaceutical companies and medical professionals, alleging the scourge of opioid addiction in the county stems from "callously deceptive" marketing by opioid manufacturers and perpetuated by prominent doctors they bankrolled.

Summit and Tooele counties have also filed lawsuits, while Utah and Weber counties have declared they intend to do the same.

On Tuesday, the Utah County Commission approved the Jones Waldo law firm to begin negotiations to represent the county in possible opioid litigation.

Reyes said he wouldn't second guess a county's decision to do what it believes is in its best interest.

"We have not dictated or tried to tell municipalities what to do. We have assured them, though, that if they decide not to file litigation and they rely on the state of Utah and the attorney general's office in negotiations, that we are specifically negotiating what we think are better terms for the counties," he said.

Any settlement money would go not only to the state but directly to counties impacted by the opioid crisis, Reyes said.

"We have been assuring counties that we have their best interests at heart and we will continue to advocate for them," he said, adding he understands why some counties have chosen to pursue lawsuits.

Also Tuesday, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was named as a task force co-chairman along with Reyes and Brian Besser, Drug Enforcement Administration special agent in charge in Salt Lake City.

Lee said he plans to hold a conference about opioid abuse in late summer or early fall in Salt Lake City.

"We look forward to finding ways to tackle this problem," he said.