Focus turns to senator with doctor guilty of Medicare fraud
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – A prominent Florida eye doctor accused of political corruption was convicted of Medicare fraud Friday, increasing the odds that federal prosecutors could pressure him to testify against New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez.
Dr. Salomon Melgen faces 15 to 20 years in prison on 67 counts, including health care fraud, submitting false claims and falsifying records in patients’ files, if he doesn’t strike a deal before his sentencing, scheduled for July 14.
The senator denies any wrongdoing.
The doctor, 62, collected more money from Medicaid than any other physician in the nation – $21 million – at the height of the fraud in 2012.
He showed no reaction when the verdict was read and was immediately taken into custody. Several of his family members burst into tears outside the courtroom.
“It’s not fair,” said his wife, Flor Melgen. “He’s a good doctor.”
Defense attorney Kirk Ogrosky said he’s considering an appeal.
“He cares very deeply about his patients and tried very hard to help them,” Ogrosky said. “He had hopes the jury would see it differently.”
Prosecutors had no immediate comment.
Melgren and Menendez face trial on Sept. 6 in New Jersey on charges the doctor bribed the senator for favors, including intervention in the fraud probe.
Prosecutors convinced jurors the doctor stole up to $105 million from the federal medical insurance program between 2008 and 2013 by performing unneeded tests and treatments on mostly elderly and disabled patients.
Melgen’s attorneys argued that the Dominican-born, Harvard-trained doctor was a kind and caring physician. They acknowledged that he made billing and treatment mistakes, exposing him to potential lawsuits and possibly losing his medical license. But they said they were unintentional, and therefore not a crime.
Prosecutors countered that anybody can make an occasional mistake, but Melgren’s actions were too numerous to be honest. For example, the doctor frequently billed Medicare for tests and treatment of prosthetic eyes.
Prosecutors also pointed to tests run in seconds that were supposed to take five minutes or more. That made the tests unusable for diagnosis, but enabled him to bill Medicare up to several hundred dollars each for as many as 100 patients a day.
He pocketed millions more by splitting single-use vials of an expensive eye drug into four doses and billing the government for each one, they said.
Melgen became politically active in 1997, when he treated Florida Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, who appointed him to a state board.
He was soon hosting Democratic fundraisers at his 6,500-square-foot (605-square-meter) North Palm Beach home. That led to his friendship with Menendez, during which Melgen paid for trips he and the senator took to France and to the doctor’s home at a Dominican resort.
Menendez reimbursed Melgen $58,500 after the trips became public knowledge.
Federal prosecutors in New Jersey say Melgen’s gifts to Menendez were actually bribes. In return, they say, the senator obtained visas for the married Melgen’s foreign mistresses, interceded with Medicare officials investigating his practice, and pressured the State Department to intervene in a business dispute Melgen had with the Dominican government.