NEWARK, N.J. — The former head of the trillion-dollar federal agency that oversaw the implementation of the Affordable Care Act testified Tuesday she found it unusual when she was asked to meet in 2012 with U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez at the request U.S. Sen. Harry Reid to discuss what she took to be an issue surrounding one physician’s Medicare billing dispute.
Five years later, that meeting is playing a central role in the bribery case against Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, and the physician, Salomon Melgen, who is charged with plying Menendez with free trips on his private plane and other gifts in exchange for Menendez’s political influence on the Medicare dispute and other matters.
Reid, a Nevada Democrat who at the time was the Senate majority leader but is now retired, set up the August 2012 meeting in his office, former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified. It was the only time in her 5 1/2 years in government that she was asked by one senator to meet with another, she said.
Echoing two other health officials’ testimony this week, Sebelius said Melgen’s name wasn’t mentioned during the meeting but she assumed his case, then under appeal, was the subject. She said it was the only time she could remember being asked to discuss “a practice that involved a Medicare or Medicaid billing issue.”
“It was my understanding that that’s what I was there to discuss,” she said. “It was the issue I knew had been discussed multiple times between Senator Menendez and our staff. That was why we were in the room.”
Jurors heard from Sebelius, the highest-profile witness to testify, in the trial’s fifth week. The trial is expected to last well into November.
An indictment charges Menendez met with Sebelius and others to advocate on behalf of Melgen, a Florida eye doctor, in an $8.9 million billing dispute with Medicare over Melgen’s practice of charging for multiple doses of medicine from one vial.
Menendez and Melgen deny those and other charges, including that Menendez interceded to help with visa applications for Melgen’s foreign girlfriends in exchange for bribes. The men say they are longtime friends who have exchanged gifts for years with no nefarious intent.
As with the testimonies of former Medicare administrator Marilyn Tavenner and a subordinate, defense attorneys focused during Sebelius’ testimony on the fact that the meeting centered on Medicare policy, with Menendez alleging reimbursement rules were unfair and being applied inconsistently.
Tavenner testified Menendez “asked me to take a look at the policy, to consider if the policy was fairly stated, was there room for interpretation, did I need to make changes in the policy.”
Asked by Department of Justice attorney Peter Koski if she understood changes in the policy would benefit Melgen, she replied they would have and added, “I was not aware of any other doctors billing Medicare in the way Dr. Melgen was billing Medicare.”
Under cross-examination, Tavenner conceded she received a memo before her meeting with Menendez earlier in 2012 listing several issues he wanted to discuss that didn’t have anything to do with Melgen.
Melgen eventually paid back the $8.9 million. In a separate case not involving Menendez, he was convicted in Florida in April on multiple counts of health care fraud, submitting false claims and falsifying patients’ records. Sentencing in that case was postponed until after the current trial concludes.