WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Attorneys for a prominent Florida eye doctor convicted of Medicare fraud that stole more than $100 million from federal taxpayers put character witnesses before a judge on Tuesday to support a reduced sentence.
Dr. Salomon Melgen, 63, was found guilty of 67 crimes, including health care fraud, submitting false claims and falsifying records in patients’ files. Evidence showed he subjected patients to unnecessary procedures, including sticking needles in their eyes and burning their retinas with lasers.
Melgen also stands accused in a separate federal case of bribing Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey in exchange for favors including visas for his foreign mistresses.
But as Melgen’s three-day sentencing hearing began, numerous patients and former employees praised the Dominican-born, Harvard-trained doctor, who sat quietly at the defense table wearing a blue prison uniform, his legs shackled.
Bonnie Illsley, his former office manager, told the judge she never saw any evidence of fraud. Instead, she said she saw “a kind, generous man who would give you the shirt off his back.”
She said he would often meet emergency patients at his office at night or on weekends rather than send them to the emergency room, because he could provide better treatment.
Nestor Garcia said he suddenly lost his sight in 2009. Three doctors told him it was a lost cause, but Melgen restored some sight and treated him for free when his insurance company wouldn’t pay.
“He told me, ‘Nestor, I have already started treating you. I don’t care if your insurance pays me or not. I am with you to the end.”
U.S. District Judge Kenneth A. Marra could give Melgen a life sentence, but he has wide discretion. Prosecutors are asking for 30 years. The defense argues he should spend no more than 10 years in a minimum-security prison camp.
Melgen’s lawyers argued in court documents that prosecutors are exaggerating Medicare’s loss. Attorneys Kirk Ogrosky and Matthew Menchel say a 30-year or life sentence, comparable to what terrorists get, is “irrational on its face.” Because of Melgen’s age and poor health, any lengthy sentence would be equivalent to a life term, they say.
They also say a sentence of 30 years or more would result in Melgen being housed in a maximum security prison, which they called “an unnecessary burden on the taxpayers,” given his lack of criminal history. They want him sent to a minimum security camp, which they say would require a sentence of less than 10 years. Prosecutors dispute that, saying the federal Bureau of Prisons would decide his placement regardless.
Ogrosky and Menchel have unsuccessfully argued that the judge should overturn the jury’s guilty verdicts. They acknowledged during Melgen’s trial that he made billing and treatment mistakes, but said they were unintentional, and therefore not a crime.
“Unlike most Medicare fraud cases, Dr. Melgen did the work – he evaluated the patients and treated them,” the pair wrote. “When asked to repay money to Medicare, he did so. When he discovered mistaken billing, he refunded the claims.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Roger Stefin argued that fraud enabled Melgen to become ” the highest-paid (Medicare) provider in the country for most, if not all, of those years” between 2008 and 2013.
“The crimes committed by the defendant were truly horrific. The defendant not only defrauded the Medicare program of tens of millions of dollars, but he abused his patients – who were elderly, infirm, and often disabled – in the process,” Stefin wrote in court documents. “These unnecessary procedures resulted in pain, discomfort, and, in some instances, endophthalmitis, a serious eye infection that can lead to vision loss and blindness…. These ‘treatments’ involved sticking needles in their eyes, burning their retinas with a laser, and injecting dyes into their bloodstream.”
Melgen has been in custody since his April 28 conviction.
Separately, a federal jury in New Jersey hung last month after prosecutors there tried to prove Melgen’s gifts to Menendez were actually bribes. In return, they say, Menendez obtained visas for Melgen’s foreign mistresses, interceded with Medicare officials investigating his practice and pressured the State Department to intervene in a business dispute he had with the Dominican government.
Menendez and Melgen have denied wrongdoing in that case. Prosecutors have not said whether they will retry them.