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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Attorney General's Office laid out its plan to lawmakers Monday on how to spend an estimated hundreds of millions of dollars in award money the state is receiving from a multistate settlement from drug companies.
Utah joined other attorneys general across the country in a lawsuit going after pharmaceutical, distribution and consulting companies accused of fueling the opioid epidemic.
The lawsuit ended last summer in a historic $26 billion settlement. The state estimates Utah will receive around $300 million over an 18-year period.
On Monday, Dr. Jennifer Plumb, who heads the Opioid Settlement Advisory Committee tasked with planning how to use the money, presented the committee's research to lawmakers who will weigh where to put the funds.
"I don't know that we're quite there yet because the dollars aren't in the bank account," Plumb said.
Plumb told the Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee that surveys of subject experts and the public showed their top priority for the money is to invest it in treatment and recovery programs. Other priorities included expanded needed services and prevention.
"People are watching. People have lost," Plumb said. "People need this to be done responsibly."
The opioid epidemic has hit Utah hard. In 2014, the state had the fourth-most overdose deaths in the country. Plumb described it as a wake-up call for Utah, and state officials began putting more money and energy into combating the crisis.
"In a lot of ways these people feel stolen from us," said Plumb, who lost her brother to a heroin overdose. "It feels like they're taken from us and nothing will ever change."
Utah has seen a decline in overdose deaths since 2014 and, in the most current list, was ranked 38th in the U.S. But in 2021, the country saw an unprecedented 100,000 overdose deaths, and the trend in Utah started heading in the wrong direction.
"That's the fear is if we don't stay on top of this, if we don't utilize resources well, if we don't keep the focus on that this is still a problem, that we'll go back to where we were," Plumb said.
The committee identified five core principles in developing a plan to use the money:
- Spend money to save lives
- Use evidence to guide spending
- Invest in youth prevention
- Focus on equity — geographic, socioeconomic and racial
- Develop a fair and transparent process for spending decisions
Plumb did not know the exact amount the state would ultimately receive or when the payments over 18 years would begin. But she said counties have settled their lawsuits and the state is on track to begin receiving its portion of the settlement.