The U.S. Justice Department is suing one of the largest U.S. drug distributors for failing to report suspicious orders of prescription opioids, saying the company's "years of repeated violations" contributed to the deadly U.S. opioid epidemic.
In a civil lawsuit filed Thursday, the department alleges that AmerisourceBergen and two subsidiaries violated the Controlled Substances Act by failing to report "at least hundreds of thousands" of suspicious orders for prescription painkillers to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The department is seeking potentially billions of dollars in penalties.
"For years, AmerisourceBergen prioritized profits over its legal obligations and over Americans' well-being," Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said during a press call.
Under the Controlled Substances Act, distributors of controlled drugs are required to monitor and report suspicious orders to the drug agency.
The lawsuit alleges that AmerisourceBergen failed to report "numerous orders from pharmacies that AmerisourceBergen knew were likely facilitating diversion of prescription opioids."
The complaint cites five such pharmacies.
A Florida pharmacy and a West Virginia pharmacy received opioids from AmerisourceBergen that the company allegedly knew "were likely being sold in parking lots for cash," according to the complaint.
In Colorado, AmerisourceBergen distributed prescription painkillers to a pharmacy it allegedly knew was its largest purchaser of oxycodone 30mg tablets in the state.
AmerisourceBergen identified 11 patients at the pharmacy as potential "drug addicts." Two of those patients later died of overdoses, according to the lawsuit.
In New Jersey, an online pharmacy that received opioids from AmerisourceBergen has pleaded guilty to illegally selling controlled substances, while the chief pharmacist at another pharmacy has been indicted for drug diversion.
"These incidents were part of the systematic failure by AmerisourceBergen, including dramatically understaffing and underfunding its compliance programs," Philip Sellinger, U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey, said during the press call. "In one year, AmerisourceBergen spent more on taxicabs and office supplies than on the Controlled Substances Act compliance budget."
In a statement, AmerisourceBergen said the lawsuit represented an attempt to "shift the onus of interpreting and enforcing the law from the Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to an industry they are tasked with regulating and policing."
The five pharmacies were "cherrypicked" by the DOJ out of thousands the company serves, the statement said.
AmerisourceBergen is one of three major U.S. pharmaceutical distributors. The other two are McKesson and Cardinal Health.
In February the companies, along with pharmaceutical manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, agreed to pay $26 billion to settle thousands of civil lawsuits brought by state and local governments. Most of the money will go toward treatment and prevention.
The U.S. drug epidemic has killed more than 1 million people since 1999, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Opioids are the main driver of U.S. drug overdose deaths. Of an estimated 108,000 drug overdose deaths reported in the country last year, 81,000 involved opioids such as fentanyl, according to the CDC.