Novartis AG was sued on Tuesday by the United States, which accused the Swiss drug maker of using kickbacks to induce pharmacies to steer thousands of patients to its drug Myfortic, which is used for people who have undergone kidney transplants.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan said Novartis disguised the kickbacks as rebates and discounts, in a scheme that caused Medicare and Medicaid to issue tens of millions of dollars of reimbursements based on false, tainted claims.

"Novartis co-opted the independence of certain pharmacists and turned them into salespeople," Bharara said in a statement.

The lawsuit seeks civil penalties and triple damages from Novartis for violating the federal False Claims Act. Bharara also said Novartis is a "repeat offender," having settled fraud charges linked to kickbacks fewer than three years ago.

A Novartis spokeswoman had no immediate comment.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel and Bernard Vaughan in New York; Editing by Gary Hill)