Local April 14, 2017 | 2:43 pm

US watchdog weighs in on Dominican eye doctor trial

R. Menedez, S. Melgen


West Palm Beach.-  Indicted Senator Robert Menendez’ biggest donor, Dr. Salomon Melgen, is on trial in West Palm Beach for on 76 charges of defrauding Medicare of $105 million. These charges are separate from those that Melgen bribed Menendez, on which the duo will be tried in New Jersey later in the year.

Of course, there is a connection between the two proceedings. Melgen wouldn’t have been able to shower favors on Menendez, or kick in $700,000 to a super PAC that spent most of the money to re-elect Menendez in 2012, if he wasn’t getting gobs of money from somewhere. And that somewhere was you and me, the taxpayers.

But it’s being treated like two separate local stories, one in Florida and one in New Jersey. Despite increasingly colorful — and disturbing — testimony at Melgen’s trial, it has not broken through to the national media, except Courthouse News Service. Excellent local coverage has been provided by the Palm Beach Post.

The New Jersey bribery case has received national attention only when the courts, three of them now, including the Supreme Court, have rejected Menendez efforts to get the indictments thrown out on Constitutional grounds. Otherwise, Menendez plods along like nothing is amiss, even raising money for a 2018 re-election bid.

The Melgen-bankrolled super PAC was organized by associates of then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a fact that should really supercharge the story. Reid even summoned Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to his office to discuss the Melgen Medicare investigation.

The appearance here is that Menendez’ 2012 re-election was funded with proceeds from a massive Medicare fraud that victimized hundreds of mostly-elderly people. And this political spending was facilitated by a Super PAC associated with the Senate Majority Leader, all the while Democratic politicians demagogued on the Medicare issue.

This should be a huge and debilitating scandal for all involved, and especially for the national Democratic party, but so far it is not. The media is not doing its job.

It’s not for lack of material. From a March 29 Palm Beach Post story by Jane Musgrave:

One of the nation’s top retina specialists used words like “abusive,” “unconscionable” and “horrifying” this week to describe treatment Palm Beach County ophthalmologist Dr. Salomon Melgen gave patients at four once-bustling clinics he operated from Delray Beach to Port St. Lucie.

“It’s terrible and disgraceful and I’m embarrassed for our entire profession,” Dr. Julia Haller, ophthalmologist-in-chief at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, said while reviewing patient charts that showed Melgen billed Medicare for diagnostic tests of prosthetic and blind eyes that she said were clearly beyond saving.

Or consider this April 4 Musgrave dispatch from the trial describing the testimony of Dr. Alan Aker who hired Melgen to work in his clinic one day a week but became alarmed when Melgen diagnosed every patient he saw with wet macular degeneration:

Finally in 2007, after learning Melgen had directed a technician to fill out charts before patients arrived and then watched as he circled billing codes before he even examined patients, Aker said he’d had enough. He decided Melgen’s services were no longer needed at the eye center Aker operates with his wife, fellow cataract surgeon, Dr. Ann Kasten.

Aker’s testimony came after a Delray Beach ophthalmologist voiced similar concerns about Melgen’s methods. Dr. Robert Raden said he saw 10 or 15 of Melgen’s former patients. “Many of them stand out as having too many procedures or having unnecessary tests and unnecessary procedures,” he said.

Or consider this from testimony yesterday as reported by the Post about how lucrative bilking taxpayers can be:

Diagnosing and treating thousands of elderly patients for wet macular degeneration at four clinics from Delray Beach to Port St. Lucie, Melgen raked in millions more from Medicare for various tests and procedures than any other eye specialist in the nation, according to figures compiled by an FBI intelligence analyst.

For instance, while his closest competitor nationwide made $33.6 million over six years for a particular procedure, he made $57.3 million. While the median, or typical, amount a retinal specialist made for a certain test was $3,678, he collected a staggering $16.8 million.

Further, analyst Jennifer Minton testified, it wasn’t because Melgen saw more Medicare patients than other eye doctors. While he treated roughly 2,300 Medicare patients over the six years she reviewed, other doctors treated two or three times as many, she said.

The bribery charges relate to Menendez’ attempts to derail the Medicare fraud investigation and for pushing a port security deal in the Dominican Republic that would have provided a windfall for Melgen. In return, the indictment alleges, Melgen provided Menendez with private jet ride rides, Dominican vacations, and donations to his legal defense fund.

The port security deal was exposed by NLPC through a front-page New York Times story on February 1, 2013. NLPC provided information to the Times on an exclusive basis, apparently prompting the federal criminal investigation.

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