According the developing accounts, NJ Sen. Bob Menendez has a special relationship with mega-donor Dr. Salomon Melgen. In addition to campaign contributions, Dr. Melgen allegedly flew Sen. Menendez to the Dominican Republic on his private plane and may have provided the Senator with prostitutes. That soap opera, though, obscures a more troubling connection. According to a report in the Washington Post, Sen. Menendez intervened at least twice on behalf of Melgen in a billing dispute he had with Medicare.
Since at least 2009, Dr. Melgen, a Florida eye surgeon has been in a billing dispute with Medicare. At issue is billing over a vial of medicine used in surgery to treat macular degeneration. Under Medicare billing practices, the system reimburses medical offices $2,000 for each vial. Dr. Melgen broke the vial into 3-4 individual doses, billing Medicare $6-8,000 for each vial. Medicare’s original complaint alleged that Dr. Melgen had improperly billed Medicare $8.9 million.
Medicare billing is notoriously complicated. It is also entirely possible that Melgen’s dilution of the medicinal vial was medically appropriate. At any given moment, there are likely dozens of billing disputes being debated between Medicare and doctors’ offices. It is unusual, however, that a US Senator weighs in.
According to the Post, Sen. Menendez pressed HHS officials on the matter on at least two occasions. The first was a phone call in 2009 to Jonathan Blum, the Medicare director for HHS. The second was in 2012, in a meeting ostensibly to discuss implementation of ObamaCare.
It is important to note that Dr. Melgen is not a constituent of Sen. Menendez. He does not practice medicine in New Jersey. Outside of campaign contributions, he has no ties to the Senator that might in other cases trigger a Senator’s intervention on behalf of a constituent. Yet, according to officials, Dr. Melgen frequently cited his ties to Menendez.
A second former federal official recounted that Menendez’s name came up repeatedly when Melgen was interviewed by investigators from the Justice Department and the inspector general’s office at the Department of Health and Human Services.
“He was using Menendez more as a character reference,” the official said. “He thought he was untouchable.”
The current Menendez saga began with a sex scandal. The full truth of his relationship with Dr. Melgen is more troubling. Just one month after his last reported intervention with Medicare officials on Melgen’s behalf, Sen. Menendez used his perch on a Foreign Affairs Subcommittee to press State Department officials to take action with the Dominican Republic that would financially reward Melgen.
That is a lot of quid to whatever quo Melgen might have been providing.