Drug distributor AmerisourceBergen prioritised “profits over the wellbeing of Americans” by failing to report suspicious orders for painkillers that helped fuel an opioids epidemic across the US, federal prosecutors allege.

In a civil lawsuit filed on Thursday, the Department of Justice said the Pennsylvania-based wholesaler, which sold billions of opioids over the past decade, repeatedly failed to comply with legal reporting requirements, resulting in hundreds of thousands of violations.

AmerisourceBergen “knew that opioids they distributed were likely being sold in pharmacies’ parking lots for cash but they continued to supply those pharmacies with huge amounts of opioids anyway”, the complaint alleged, referring to sites in Florida and West Virginia.

It detailed an instance in which an AmerisourceBergen employee identified “specific problematic customers” of a pharmacy, which the company continued to supply. “Two of the customers whom the employee identified later died of drug overdoses shortly after buying opioids from that pharmacy,” the 80-page complaint alleged.

“The company’s repeated and systemic failure to fulfil this simple [reporting] obligation helped ignite an opioid epidemic that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths over the past decade,” said Anne Milgram, the administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

In response to the DoJ’s complaint, AmerisourceBergen said prosecutors had “cherry picked” from the thousands of pharmacies it supplied.

The complaint, the company said, “attempts to shift the onus of interpreting and enforcing the law from the Department of Justice and DEA to an industry they are tasked with regulating and policing”.

It added that “former bureaucrats at the DEA simply tried to make private companies take on their responsibility of determining what pharmacies should be able to dispense opioid medication”.

Thousands of lawsuits have been filed against pharmaceutical companies and distributors across the US in the wake of the opioids crisis, which claimed roughly half a million lives over the past two decades due to the misuses of drugs like oxycodone and fentanyl.

Last year, AmerisourceBergen and two other large suppliers, McKesson and Cardinal Health, agreed to pay billions of dollars each in a settlement with several US states.

In November, pharmacy groups CVS and Walgreens agreed to pay almost $10bn to a group of US states to settle most of the outstanding lawsuits over their fulfilment of opioid painkiller prescriptions, while supermarket chain Walmart agreed to pay more than $3bn. Walmart still faces separate civil charges from the US government.

If found liable in the case filed on Thursday, AmerisourceBergen could face billions of dollars in penalties.

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