FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A prominent Florida eye doctor once accused of bribing Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey received a 17-year sentence Thursday for stealing $73 million from Medicare by persuading elderly patients to undergo excruciating tests and treatments they didn’t need for diseases they didn’t have.
Dr. Salomon Melgen was convicted of 67 crimes including health care fraud, submitting false claims and falsifying records in patients’ files. Prosecutors showed that between 2008 and 2013, he became the nation’s highest-paid Medicare doctor, building his practice by giving elderly patients unnecessary eye injections and laser blasts on their retinas that some compared to torture.
Melgen, 63, was ordered to pay $42.6 million in restitution to Medicare and could be ordered to pay more in the future.
The sentencing came after four days of hearings spread over December and January, with prosecutors arguing he stole $136 million but his attorneys insisting the proven total was $64,000. U.S. District Judge Kenneth A. Marra said the evidence shows the theft was at least $73 million.
Marra could have given the Harvard-trained, Dominican-born physician a life sentence. Prosecutors had been seeking 30 years. Defense attorneys sought less than 10 and argued that Melgen should be released immediately with a sentence of time served. They plan to appeal the conviction.
Melgen has been in custody since his April 28 conviction. Separately, in November a federal jury in New Jersey hung after a 2 ½-month trial where prosecutors tried to prove Melgen’s gifts to Menendez were actually bribes. In return, they said, Menendez interceded with Medicare officials investigating his practice, obtained visas for Melgen’s foreign mistresses, and pressured the State Department to intervene in a business dispute he had with the Dominican government.
Menendez and Melgen denied wrongdoing, saying the European and Dominican vacations and other gifts were tokens of their longtime friendship. After a judge threw out some of the charges, prosecutors decided Jan. 31 not to retry the bribery case.
During Melgen’s two-month Medicare fraud trial, prosecutors argued that any doctor could make occasional billing mistakes, but Melgen’s were too numerous to be honest. For example, Melgen frequently billed Medicare for tests and treatment on the fake eyes of one-eyed patients, as if they were real.
Prosecutors also pointed to tests that should take five minutes or more, yet were done in seconds, making them useless for diagnosis, but enabling Melgen to bill Medicare up to several hundred dollars each, for as many as 100 patients a day.
The doctor pocketed millions more by splitting single-use vials of an expensive eye drug into four doses — there was enough extra medicine in each — and billing the government separately for each injection, they said. Melgen’s attorneys argued that this cost the government no extra money, as Medicare would have purchased four vials if he had followed the instructions.
Melgen became politically active in 1997, after treating 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, and eventually became friends with Menendez. 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.