The Justice Department on Thursday alleged that the AmerisourceBergen Corporation, one of the country’s largest pharmaceutical distributors, and two of its subsidiaries failed to report hundreds of thousands of suspicious prescription opioid orders to pharmacies across the country.
The lawsuit, which spans several states, alleges that AmerisourceBergen disregarded its legal obligation to report orders of controlled substances to the Drug Enforcement Agency for nearly a decade. The company ignored “red flags” that pharmacies in West Virginia, New Jersey, Colorado and Florida were diverting opioids into illegal drug markets, the suit says.
“The Department of Justice is committed to holding accountable those who fueled the opioid crisis by flouting the law,” Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in a statement Thursday.
“Companies distributing opioids are required to report suspicious orders to federal law enforcement. Our complaint alleges that AmerisourceBergen – which sold billions of units of prescription opioids over the past decade – repeatedly failed to comply with that requirement,” she added.
If AmerisourceBergen is found liable at trial, the company faces billions of dollars in financial penalties, the Justice Department said.
Lauren Esposito, a spokesperson for AmerisourceBergen, countered on Thursday in a statement that said the Justice Department’s complaint rested 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.”
She added: “With the vast quantity of information that AmerisourceBergen shared directly with the DEA with regards to these five pharmacies, the DEA still did not feel the need to take swift action itself – in fact, AmerisourceBergen terminated relationships with four of them before DEA ever took any enforcement action while two of the five pharmacies maintain their DEA controlled substance registration to this day.”
Yet AmerisourceBergen was allegedly aware that in two of the pharmacies, drugs it distributed were likely being sold in parking lots for cash, the Justice Department said. In another pharmacy, the company was allegedly warned that patients likely suffering from addiction were receiving opioids, including some people who later died of a drug overdose.
The Justice Department also noted in its lawsuit that AmerisourceBergen’s reporting systems for suspicious opioid orders were deeply inadequate, and that the company intentionally changed its reporting systems to reduce the number of orders flagged as suspicious amid the opioid epidemic.
Even when orders were flagged as suspicious, AmerisourceBergen often didn’t report those orders to the DEA, according to the complaint.
Opioids are involved in the vast majority of drug overdose deaths, though synthetic opioids – particularly fentanyl – have played an outsized role. Synthetic opioids – excluding methadone – were involved in more than 72,000 overdose deaths in 2021, about two-thirds of all overdose deaths that year and more than triple the number from five years earlier.