Justice Dept. Sues Pa. Pharma Distributor for Alleged Involvement in Opioid Crisis

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The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit in Philadelphia last week alleging that AmerisourceBergen, a pharmaceutical distributor with its headquarters in Montgomery County, contributed to the county’s opioid crisis.

The company failed to notify the government of the diversion of “hundreds of thousands” of prescribed opioid medicines supplied to pharmacies, according to DOJ officials.

According to the lawsuit, AmerisourceBergen along with subsidiaries AmerisourceBergen Drug Corporation and Integrated Commercialization Solutions LLC., regularly disregarded their duty to report suspicious customer orders or conduct to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

“The complaint alleges that this unlawful conduct resulted in at least hundreds of thousands of violations of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The Justice Department seeks civil penalties and injunctive relief,” according to a press release from the U.S. Department of Justice.

According to the lawsuit, AmerisourceBergen violated the Controlled Substances Act between 2014 and 2022 by failing to notify the DEA of at least hundreds of thousands of questionable orders for controlled substances as required by law. The alleged illegal behavior included AmerisourceBergen filling and allegedly concealing multiple orders from pharmacies it knew were probably assisting in the diversion of prescription opioids.

According to the government’s complaint, AmerisourceBergen was aware of multiple pharmacies for which there were significant “red flags” that could have indicated that prescription medications were being diverted to black markets. The complaint claims that despite this, AmerisourceBergen continued to supply medications to pharmacies for several years and only sometimes reported suspicious orders to the DEA.

The lawsuit lays out five alleged incidents involving: two pharmacies, one in Florida and one in West Virginia, where it says AmerisourceBergen was aware that the medications it supplied were probably being sold for cash in parking lots; a pharmacy in New Jersey that admitted to selling controlled substances illegally; a pharmacy in New Jersey whose pharmacist-in-charge was charged with drug diversion; and a pharmacy in Colorado that it says AmerisourceBergen was aware was its biggest customer for oxycodone 30mg tabs.

The government additionally asserted AmerisourceBergen specifically identified 11 individuals from the Colorado pharmacy as possible “drug abusers” whose prescriptions were probably fraudulent. Two of those individuals later overdosed and died.

The complaint further claims that AmerisourceBergen relied on internally developed methods that were gravely flawed in both their conception and their execution for the monitoring and detection of suspicious orders. These technologies reportedly only detected a very small percentage of questionable orders.

Federal authorities also claim AmerisourceBergen purposely changed its internal processes in a way that decreased the amount of controlled narcotics being reported as suspicious in the midst of the opioid epidemic.

The filing is the outcome of a multi-year investigation conducted by the DEA, the Consumer Protection Branch of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Division and numerous U.S. Attorneys’ offices, including one that covers southeastern Pennsylvania.

“Companies like AmerisourceBergen that sell controlled substances across the country have a significant responsibility to ensure that their product is handled appropriately and that they comply with their federal legal obligations,” said U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Jacqueline Romero. “The allegations against AmerisourceBergen are disturbing, especially for a company that is headquartered only a few miles from neighborhoods in Philadelphia devastated by the opioid epidemic. This lawsuit sends a strong message to the community that companies who fail to comply with their controlled substance legal obligations will be held accountable.”

AmerisourceBergen referred to the complaint as an unlawful attempt to “shift blame” and the responsibilities of law enforcement from U.S. Department of Justice and DEA to an industry they oversee, according to a Reuters report.

In 2021, the opioid epidemic killed 5,319 Pennsylvanians, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Governments have taken a hands-on approach by suing opioid makers and distributors in recent years, leading to large financial settlements such as one Bucks County is set to receive for nearly $45 million, which will help cover costs related to the opioid crisis.

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