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December 29, 2022

U.S. Justice Department sues Conshohocken-based pharmaceutical distributor for role in opioid crisis

AmerisourceBergen, which generates more than $200 billion in revenue annually, could pay billions in penalties for not reporting suspicious prescription drug orders

The federal government has filed a lawsuit against AmerisourceBergen for failing to report suspicious prescription drug orders. The Conshohocken-based pharmaceutical distributor did not flag "hundreds of thousands" of what prosecutors believe were dubious requests for controlled substances, a failure they say "fueled" the opioid crisis.

The civil complaint, filed Thursday at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, alleges AmerisourceBergen violated the Controlled Substances Act, which requires pharmaceutical distributors to report suspicious orders for pharmaceuticals to the DEA. The corporation and its subsidiaries flouted the law for almost a decade, "prioritizing profits over the well-being of Americans," a press release from the Justice Department claims.

AmerisourceBergen is one of the largest pharmaceutical distributors in America, and the 10th biggest company in the country in terms of revenue. The lawsuit claims the corporation sold more than 100 million doses of fentanyl products and more than a billion doses of products containing oxycodone, the generic name for OxyContin, in 2020 alone.

If AmerisourceBergen is found liable, it could face billions in penalties.

"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," U.S. Attorney Jacqueline C. Romero said in the release. "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."

According to the complaint, AmerisourceBergen allowed clients to fill out shortened versions of due-diligence documents designed to catch "red flag" customers. The company also purportedly sent sales people, rather than compliance staffers, to screen for problematic customers, and designed an internal algorithm to identify suspicious orders that prosecutors argue had absurdly narrow parameters. This resulted in less than 1% of controlled substance orders placed with AmerisourceBergen being flagged and held for review, court documents say.

This allowed clients, including "red flag" customers, to order mass quantities of opioids without DEA scrutiny.

As the opioid epidemic continues, legal action has increasingly shifted from the manufacturers — including the now-bankrupt makers of OxyContin, Purdue Pharma — to distributors and retailers. Pharmacy giants CVS and Walgreens settled a massive collection of lawsuits in November, pledging $10 billion to various state, local and tribal governments. Pennsylvania will receive over $450 million from that settlement.

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