WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The Medicare fraud trial of a prominent Florida eye doctor tied to corruption charges against New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez wound toward its conclusion Tuesday with his lawyers portraying him as an innovative physician who didn't give up on his hard-to-treat patients.
Dr. Salomon Melgen is charged with 76 counts for allegedly stealing up to $105 million from Medicare between 2008 and 2013 by performing useless tests and procedures on elderly and disabled patients.
But Dr. Dana Deupree, testifying Tuesday for the defense, disagreed with the prosecution's contention. Going through numerous patient records, he testified that Melgen's treatments may have been the only hope many patients had for saving their sight. The Clearwater, Florida, ophthalmologist said that although some of the tests performed by Melgen and his staff could have been done better and that he might have performed different procedures, Melgen's work was medically sound.
Deupree, who is expected to be the final defense witness, testified that Melgen's attorneys have paid him $135,000 over several years to consult on this case and prior civil lawsuits.
The trial is in its seventh week. Closing arguments may happen next week.
According to the Palm Beach Post, recent testimony in Melgen's trial has included:
— Dr. Julia Haller, ophthalmologist-in-chief at Wills Eye Hospital, who reviewed Melgen's records for the prosecution, calling Melgen's treatment of his patients "abusive" and "unconscionable." She said his records showed Melgen billed the government health insurance program for tests and treatments on eyes that were beyond saving and on prosthetic eyes. She said he used tests and treatments that were outmoded and that his diagnoses were often wrong. She called his conduct "terrible and disgraceful and I'm embarrassed for our entire profession."
— Patient Kermit Foster, who has lost a kidney and eye to diabetes, testifying that the laser treatments Melgen performed on his remaining eye caused such pain, "I would jump back. ... Sometimes they had someone hold me in the chair." The 56-year-old former truck driver said Melgen's technicians repeatedly took photos and did tests on his prosthetic eye. Prosecutors say Melgen billed Medicare for tests and treatments on Foster's fake eye.
— Dr. Robert Raden testified that he examined about 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. He said an 86-year-old woman had been receiving laser treatments on her eyes every three months for 10 years even though she had excellent vision and no sign of disease.
— Patient Maggie Bronson, testifying for the defense, said the shots Melgen gave her restored some of her sight. A 71-year-old diabetic, Bronson said federal agents wanted her to make incriminating statements against Melgen but she refused. Prosecutors have charged that Medicare paid Melgen $411,000 to treat Bronson between 2008 and 2013 for unneeded and worthless treatments.
In the Menendez case, federal prosecutors in New Jersey say the Melgen and Menendez friendship devolved into corruption. For example, they say, Melgen took the senator on trips to France and to the doctor's second home at a Dominican resort.
In return, they say, the senator got visas for the married Melgen's foreign mistresses, interceded with Medicare officials when they began investigating Melgen's practice and pressured the State Department to help Melgen with a business dispute he had with the Dominican government. Menendez has denied wrongdoing.
If convicted on the Medicare fraud counts, Melgen faces up to 610 years in prison. He is free on $18 million bond.