WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CN) - A South Florida eye doctor, accused of bilking Medicare and bribing a U.S. senator to help him skirt liability, mounted an aggressive defense after prosecutors presented weeks of testimony that portrayed him as a rogue physician engaged in medical profiteering.
Rounding the corner in a long-running Medicare fraud trial, ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen's defense team on Thursday afternoon called up its witness Maggie Bronson, an elderly former patient who told the jury that Melgen helped restore her vision, and that prosecutors tried "to put words in [her] mouth to hurt him."
Bronson, one of thirty patients listed in the indictment, was treated by Melgen for roughly a decade, until 2015, when Melgen closed up shop, facing separate criminal cases on charges of healthcare fraud and bribery.
Bronson said she initially visited Melgen's office because she was going blind and had no vision in her left eye. She was suffering from diabetic eye disease, she said.
"I had [given] up on life because I couldn't see at all," Bronson testified, confined to a wheelchair.
But she said her vision improved substantially under Melgen's care.
"I was very very happy that I could see," Bronson testified, calling Melgen a "patient" and "kind" doctor.
She claimed members of the prosecution team met with her prior to the trial and tried to get her to criticize Melgen and "say something that [she] didn't wanna say."
According to the indictment, Melgen and his medical practice Vitreo-Retinal Consultants of the Palm Beaches billed Medicare an exorbitant $411,000 for his treatment of Bronson between mid-2008 and Dec. 2013. During that time, Vitreo-Retinal Consultants billed for more than 260 imaging tests on her, prosecutors claim.
While the indictment alleges that Melgen frequently failed to inject dye needed for the tests, Bronson testified that her veins were small and that Melgen's office therefore determined that the dye should instead be administered orally.
Bronson's testimony comes after three weeks of less-than-flattering statements from a team of experts for the prosecution. The experts told the jury that Melgen falsely diagnosed patients (including Bronson), injected pricey Lucentis medication into patients' eyes without justification and applied thermal laser therapy that was obsolete for the condition he purported to be treating.
Julia Haller, Ophthalmologist-in-Chief at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, went so far as to say that Melgen's handling of one patient was tantamount to "elder abuse," and that his use of thermal laser on another patient was "unconscionable."
Melgen also faced testimony from retired retina specialist Robert Bergen, who claimed that the amount of diagnostic tests for which Melgen was billing was "beyond absurd" and "in the next galaxy, as far as I'm concerned."
"[It's] absolutely not within the realm of medical reasonableness, if that's what you want to call it," Bergen testified.
Prosecutors meanwhile have been hammering away at allegations that Melgen and Vitreo-Retinal Consultants billed Medicare for supposed diagnostic testing on the prosthetic eyes of three patients listed in the indictment. An FBI analyst told the jury that Melgen billed Medicare for nearly 100 diagnostic tests that correspond to the prosthetic eye of one of those patients.
Altogether, Melgen and Vitreo-Retinal Consultants allegedly billed Medicare more than $190 million between 2008 and the end of 2013. Of that sum, they received at least $105 million in payments, prosecutors allege.
DEFENSE SEEKS TO PLANT SEEDS OF DOUBT