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Oklahoma just agreed to a big settlement with the maker of Oxycontin. Should Colorado do the same?

State lawmaker says the amount Oklahoma received is “absolutely insufficient” to address Colorado’s opioid crisis

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Colorado’s lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, the maker of the opioid Oxycontin, has gone largely silent since state Attorney General Phil Weiser took office, and a spokesman for Weiser on Wednesday declined to say whether the office would pursue a settlement.

“We cannot confirm that there are settlement negotiations at this time,” the spokesman, Lawrence Pacheco, wrote in an email.

Earlier this week, Purdue agreed to a $270 million settlement with the state of Oklahoma for the company’s role in helping fuel the opioid crisis there. Oklahoma, like Colorado, is one of at least 36 states that have filed suit against the company in their respective state courts.

There are also more than 1,600 other lawsuits filed by counties and municipalities — including a number from Colorado — that have been transferred to a single federal judge in Cleveland.

Oklahoma announced that most of its settlement dollars would go toward creating a new research institute for studying addiction treatment.

But a Colorado lawmaker said a similar deal here would fall far short of the money needed to address Colorado’s opioid problems.

State Sen. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, said the total cost of the opioid and overdose epidemics in Colorado is billions of dollars annually, and the state needs hundreds of millions of dollars to build out treatment space and provide recovery assistance.

“So the $200 million settlement for Oklahoma is absolutely insufficient,” she said. “Let’s actually aim for what is going to get us through the next five to 10 years of this crisis.”

State Sen. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, talks to reporters about the introduction of the red flag gun bill on Feb. 14, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Pettersen said she is hopeful bills this year at the state legislature — including some still-to-be introduced — would build on previous sessions’ work to address the crisis.

One would create a purchasing fund for Naloxone, the overdose-reversal drug. Others would make it easier for people to start on medication-assisted treatment or connect with recovery services that would help them rebuild their lives.

Another would better coordinate all the different systems offering treatment, so people seeking help or their families would have a streamlined way of knowing what resources are available where. Right now, she said, families can run into barriers — wrong numbers, facilities without spaces available, places that don’t take certain insurance and other problems.

“When you have a family member going through this who you’re trying to help, it can feel so hopeless,” said Pettersen, whose mother has struggled with opiate addiction.

But all of this takes money. In the past two sessions, lawmakers have worked to free up money in the state budget or take advantage of dollars available from the federal government. One bill this session specifically creates a fund that could accept money from opioid lawsuit settlements.

“I just want to be sure,” Pettersen said, “that the ways we would spend this would actually help people now with access to treatment and would create a sustainable framework for the next decade.”

After a flurry of filings in Colorado’s lawsuit late last year — including a motion by Purdue to dismiss the case — the file has largely gone quiet, save for a few attorney changes after Weiser took office.

The state budget package now under consideration in the Senate includes $287,156 in discretionary dollars for the attorney general’s office to add the equivalent of two positions to help manage the opioid litigation.

Purdue and the Attorney General’s Office are next scheduled to update a judge on the status of the lawsuit in May.

Rising Sun