Confined to a wheelchair and ravaged by diabetes, 71-year-old Maggie Bronson traveled from Belle Glade to West Palm Beach on Thursday to make sure a federal jury understood just how much Palm Beach County retinal specialist Dr. Salomon Melgen had done for her.
“I was so happy because I had given up on life because I couldn’t see anymore,” she told the jury, which will decide whether the 62-year-old ophthalmologist bilked Medicare out of as much as $105 million. “I said, ‘Lord, help me and recommend me to someone so I can see again.’”
Melgen, who gave her shots that helped restore some of the sight she had lost in her left eye, was a godsend, she told the jury.
But, federal prosecutors claim, Bronson was also a gift for Melgen.
Among the 76 charges of health care fraud that the wealthy, politically-connected physician faces is one that deals specifically with his treatment of Bronson. According to the indictment, between 2008 and 2013 Melgen billed Medicare $411,000 for performing various tests and procedures on Bronson that were medically unnecessary.
A nationally renown retinal specialist, who testified for the prosecution in the trial that began last month, described Melgen’s bills for his treatment of Brunson as “shocking.”
Dr. Julia Haller, ophthalmologist-in-chief at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, analyzed photos Melgen took of Bronson’s eyes and declared many of them unreadable. That’s because Melgen didn’t administer the test correctly, Haller said.
When performing what is known as an indocyanine green chorioangiography, or ICG, dye has to be injected into a patient’s blood stream so it will light up the vessels in the eye when a doctor takes the image. Instead, Bronson said, because she had “bad veins,” Melgen allowed her to take the dye orally.
That meant the dye never made it to her eyes, Haller said. “It’s a sham test,” she said after being told Melgen billed Medicare for 135 ICGs for Bronson. “There’s nothing there.”
Haller also testified that other images Melgen took of Bronson’s eyes didn’t support his diagnosis that she suffered wet macular degeneration in both of them. Haller cringed when she learned Bronson, like scores of other patients, received dozens of laser treatments in addition to injections. Lasers, she said, are painful and potentially damaging.
Prosecutors have said that a staggering 98 percent of Melgen’s Medicare patients were diagnosed with the disease, which slowly robs the elderly of their sight. Most received a cookie-cutter regime of tests and treatment, prosecutors claim.
Melgen’s attorneys have said that Melgen’s high percentage of patients with wet macular degeneration isn’t surprising given the number of elderly people who live in South Florida. His clinics, after all, were in West Palm Beach, Delray Beach, Wellington and Port St. Lucie.
Further, a Lakeland ophthalmologist, who testified on Melgen’s behalf this week, said good doctors listen to their patients. If patients say their eyesight is improving after receiving what some might consider unconventional treatment, the doctor should “follow his gut,” said Harvard-educated Dr. Michael Tolentino.
In patient surveys taken by Melgen’s staff in 2012, Bronson reported that the injections and laser treatments Melgen gave her improved her eyesight. She said she didn’t know what was wrong with her eyes. Two other patients testified that their eyesight also improved when they were under his care.
Since she was the last witness of the day, Bronson was able to talk with Melgen after she testified. He took her hand and held it. She had already told jurors that she had resisted efforts by federal agents to criticize Melgen.
“I ain’t going to lie on him because he did lots for me. Why are you trying to put words in my mouth,” she said, recalling her words with the agents. “I didn’t want to say anything against him.”
A medical expert is to testify on Melgen’s behalf Monday. The trial is expected to wrap up later this month. Then, Melgen faces trial on corruption charges in New Jersey with his longtime friend, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.