CONSHOHOCKEN, Pennsylvania (WPVI) -- 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.
Conshohocken, Pa.-based AmerisourceBergen and two of its subsidiaries were charged in a civil complaint with ignoring red flags that suggested several pharmacies were diverting opioids to illicit markets.
The complaint said AmerisourceBergen reported few suspicious orders and continued to supply the pharmacies for years.
On Thursday we spoke with someone directly impacted by the opioid crisis.
You may have seen Attorney James Helm, aka Top Dog Law, on one of his Instagram legal advice videos or on a billboard around Philadelphia.
He was once addicted to opioids.
"I personally struggled with opioids from 17 to 25. It was a struggle unlike anything else," said Helm.
It wasn't until his lowest moment he was able to stop.
"It took me getting on my knees and actually saying, 'I need some help with this' before I finally was able to make a recovery. Now I can say I'm six years sober," said Helm.
So when AmerisourceBergen was hit with a federal lawsuit for its alleged role in the opioid epidemic he felt the need to speak out.
"If you were somebody who was responsible in part for the opioid epidemic you need to be held accountable for your conduct," said Helm.
Part of the Department of Justice's release Thursday states:
"We allege that AmerisourceBergen, a wholesale drug distributor, flagrantly and repeatedly violated its obligation to notify DEA of suspicious orders for controlled substances, which directly contributed to the epidemic of prescription opioid abuse across the United States."
One of the five pharmacies that allegedly placed those suspicious orders was in Trenton. Another was one out of Media.
In October of this year, Martin Brian, the owner and operator of the now defunct Murray-Overhill Pharmacy, was sentenced for giving out drugs to people who did not need them, in exchange for sexual favors.
In response to the lawsuit, AmerisourceBergen denies any wrongdoing.
"AmerisourceBergen conducted extensive due diligence into these customers, reported every sale of every controlled substance to the DEA, and reported suspicious orders of controlled substances to the DEA. The DEA still did not feel the need to take swift action itself."
Meanwhile, Helm says he was able to overcome his addiction but personally knows many others who couldn't.
He adds it's time for those victims to get some justice.
"What the government is saying is if you're going to make this amount of money off of the sale of opioids you need to have a strict process for overseeing the pharmacies that receive your opioid distribution," said Helm.
The DOJ says AmerisourceBergen could be facing billions of dollars in penalties.
The full statement from AmerisourceBergen is below:
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.
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 substance 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.
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.
A Federal Judge recently held that AmerisourceBergen has maintained a compliance diversion control program in accordance with the law for decades. This sweeping decision addressed many of the same accusations that are made in this DOJ complaint while acknowledging the role of the DEA in controlled substance distribution with tools like manufacturing quotas - ultimately concluding that AmerisourceBergen had complied with the law.