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Justice Department sues pharma distributor AmerisourceBergen over opioid orders

(WASHINGTON) — One of the nation’s largest wholesale distributors of prescription drugs failed hundreds of thousands of times over the last decade to report suspicious orders of opioids, fueling the country’s opioids epidemic by putting profits over safety, federal prosecutors said Thursday.

AmerisourceBergen and two of its subsidiaries were sued, accused of ignoring red flags that suggested several pharmacies were diverting opioids to illicit markets. The complaint alleged AmerisourceBergen reported few suspicious orders and continued to supply the pharmacies for years.

“For years, AmerisourceBergen put its profits from opioid sales over the safety of Americans,” said Philip Sellinger, U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey. “According to the complaint, this was part of a brazen, blatant, and systemic failure by one of the largest companies in America to comply with its obligations to report suspicious opioid orders, contributing to the epidemic of opioid abuse throughout this country.”

The complaint included several examples of the alleged illegal distribution, including at two pharmacies, one in Florida and one in West Virginia. AmerisourceBergen allegedly continued to do business with the West Virginia pharmacy despite learning the drugs it distributed were likely being sold in parking lots for cash after it was reported by the company’s Corporate Security and Regulatory Affairs Department (CSRA).

A New Jersey pharmacy has pleaded guilty to unlawfully selling controlled substances, the complaint says. At another New Jersey pharmacy, the pharmacist-in-charge has been indicted for drug diversion.

Prosecutors also pointed to a pharmacy that AmerisourceBergen allegedly knew was its largest purchaser of oxycodone 30mg tablets in all of Colorado. A CSRA employee looking into the pharmacy specifically identified eleven patients at this pharmacy as potential “drug addicts” whose prescriptions likely were illegitimate, the complaint alleges. Two of those patients subsequently died of overdoses, according to the complaint. CSRA never stopped sales to or took action against the pharmacy, the complaint says.

“When drug distributors like AmerisourceBergen fail to alert the DEA of suspicious orders of prescription drugs by pharmacies, they shirk a key obligation in dealing with addictive drugs that can end lives,” said U.S. Attorney Cole Finegan for the District of Colorado.

The complaint alleges that AmerisourceBergen not only ignored red flags of diversion, it also relied on internal systems to monitor and identify suspicious orders that were deeply inadequate, both in design and implementation. These systems allegedly flagged only a tiny fraction of suspicious orders, thereby enabling diversion and AmerisourceBergen’s failure to report orders it was legally obligated to identify to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, according to prosecutors.

“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,” said DEA Administrator Anne Milgram.

AmerisourceBergen said in a statement Thursday that the federal complaint “cherry picked” five pharmacies out of the tens of thousands that use the company as a wholesale distributor, while “ignoring the absence of action” from former administrators at the DEA.

The statement added, “Even in these five hand selected examples presented by the DOJ, AmerisourceBergen verified DEA registration and State Board of Pharmacy licenses before filling any orders, conducted extensive due diligence into these customers, reported every sale of every controlled substances to the DEA, and reported suspicious orders of controlled substances to the DEA for every one of these pharmacies – hundreds of suspicious orders in total.”

The company said it terminated its relationship with four of the five pharmacies mentioned in the complaint before the DEA took any enforcement action against them, and two of the five pharmacies currently maintain their DEA-controlled substance registration.

If AmerisourceBergen is found liable, it could potentially be required to pay billions of dollars in penalties, the Justice Department said.

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