Nina Pullano

BROOKLYN (CN) — AmerisourceBergen fueled the deadly opioid crisis in the United States by failing to notify federal officials of suspicious medication orders, the Department of Justice charged in a lawsuit against the pharmaceutical distributor Thursday.

The potential penalties could be in the billions of dollars since the company is charged with "at least hundreds of thousands of violations" of the Controlled Substances Act.

Officials say the company should have observed red flags indicating that pharmacies were diverting prescription drugs from legitimate medical channels but it continued to work with them.

Suspicious orders can include those of unusual size or deviating from a pharmacy’s typical prescription patterns or order frequencies.

AmerisourceBergen is accused of, since 2014, repeatedly failing to report hundreds of thousands of potential dirty dealings to the Drug Enforcement Administration while working with five pharmacies based in Florida, West Virginia, New Jersey and Colorado.

At the Florida and West Virginia pharmacies, drugs were reportedly being sold in parking lots for cash. Two New Jersey pharmacies faced drug charges, and the Colorado establishment was AmerisourceBergen’s largest buyer of 30-milligram oxycodone tablets in the state, officials say.

Despite warning signs, AmerisourceBergen “continued to flood the pharmacy with massive quantities of opioids for years after,” the 80-page complaint filed in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania states. It also says the company’s internal controls flagged only a small percentage of suspicious orders.

In one case, an employee of the company questioned whether a pharmacy was feeding its patients’ drug addictions; shortly afterward, two patients died of overdoses, the complaint says.

In 2021 AmerisourceBergen agreed to pay $6.4 billion to resolve thousands of lawsuits against it and other opioid distributors, part of an overall $26 billion agreement intended to hold companies accountable for their role in the opioid crisis.

Drug deaths rose by more than 14% between 2020 and 2021 in the United States: Last year nearly 107,000 American died of drug overdoses, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“AmerisourceBergen, one of the largest wholesale distributors of opioids in the world, had a legal obligation to report suspicious orders to the Drug Enforcement Administration, and our complaint alleges that the company’s repeated and systemic failure to fulfill this simple obligation helped ignite an opioid epidemic that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths over the past decade,” Drug Enforcement Agency Administrator Anne Milgram said in a statement.

AmerisourceBergen Corporation is named as a defendant to the lawsuit alongside two of its subsidiaries. The company reported revenues of more than $238 billion, with gross profits exceeding $8 billion, for the fiscal year that ended September 30, 2022.

A spokeswoman for AmerisourceBergen criticized the Justice Department for not taking action against pharmacies based on information it did share with the DEA. She also said AmerisourceBergen ended business with four of the five pharmacies cited before the government took any enforcement action against it.

“The Department of Justice’s (DOJ) complaint focuses on five pharmacies that were cherry picked out of the tens of thousands of pharmacies that use AmerisourceBergen as their wholesale distributor, while ignoring the absence of action from former administrators at the Drug Enforcement Administration — the DOJ’s own agency,” said Lauren Esposito, the spokeswoman.

Esposito said AmerisourceBergen verified all five pharmacies’ DEA and state pharmacy board licenses before filling orders, and that it reported hundreds of suspicious orders to the agency.