In July 2009, Menendez called Jonathan Blum, the Medicare director at CMS, to express concern, the aides said. Menendez brought up Melgen’s case, they said, in the context of broader concerns about the guidelines.
Then, in June 2012, Menendez raised Melgen’s case again at a meeting with CMS Acting Administrator Marilyn Tavenner, aides recounted. They said the primary subject of the meeting was the implementation of President Obama’s health-care overhaul.
The aides said Menendez never urged the CMS to take specific action on Melgen’s case.
Blum and Tavenner declined to comment through a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services.
Melgen frequently cited his connection to Menendez, according to two former federal officials and doctors in South Florida.
When federal health-care fraud investigators were questioning him several years ago about his billing practices, he invoked the senator’s name, the former officials said.
“He used Menendez’s name all the time. He would say, “Menendez is a good friend of mine, and he knows I never did anything wrong,’ ” said a former senior federal official familiar with the investigation.
In Florida, it was more threatening, several doctors in the South Florida region recounted. After one local eye surgeon criticized Melgen’s treatment methods in discussions with other Florida doctors, Melgen warned that he had important friends in the Senate, including Menendez, said two doctors familiar with the exchange. They said Melgen cautioned that his Washington friends could arrange an intensive federal audit of the surgeon’s practice.
Reider, the attorney, said he had no knowledge of any comments Melgen may have made mentioning his friendship to Menendez.
Melgen came to the attention of fraud investigators amid complaints from other local eye doctors alleging that his treatments were often unnecessary, a waste of money and sometimes harmful to patients’ eyesight, the two former federal officials and several doctors said.
At the same time, investigators considered him an “outlier” compared with his peers because of the volume of his billing and the rate at which he administered eye injections and performed procedures on government-insured patients, the former officials said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is still ongoing.
Melgen “was somebody who consistently showed up on the radar and was being looked at quite a bit,” said a former senior health-care fraud investigator. “The sheer volume itself is going to keep him on the radar.’’
When federal investigators interviewed Melgen, he tried to exert pressure on them by mentioning the names of Menendez and other influential politicians, the former fraud investigator said. “We thought it was odd because Menendez was in New Jersey and this guy was in Florida,’’ the official said.
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 federal interest in Melgen stretches back 10 years, when investigators interviewed Philip Rosenfeld, a nationally known retina specialist, about the volume of treatments Melgen was performing, said several eye doctors in South Florida.
These doctors said Rosenfeld, who pioneered the use of Avastin injections for macular degeneration to stem eyesight loss, had long been troubled by Melgen’s methods.
FBI agents recently interviewed Rosenfeld again, this time two days before they raided Melgen’s clinic, the doctors said.
Reached at his home in Key Biscayne, Rosenfeld declined to comment.
Doctors in south Florida said that they have been fearful of criticizing Melgen publicly, and that his Washington connections may be protecting him.
In 2010, Melgen scolded eye surgeon Randy Katz for publicly criticizing the quality of his care. According to two fellow doctors, Melgen cited his Senate connections and told Katz that he could face a Medicare investigation.
Katz did not respond to requests for comment. Melgen’s attorney declined to discuss his client’s conversations with Katz or allegations that his client had threatened other doctors.
Soon after the encounter, according to a copy of a letter obtained by The Post, Katz wrote to Palm Beach doctors in praise of Melgen.
“It has come to my attention that certain statements I made have been misunderstood as criticisms of Dr. Melgen,” Katz wrote in the open letter. “To be clear, I know Dr. Salomon Melgen to be a capable and
highly-skilled vitreo-retinal surgeon. . . . If you hear any suggestion that I have said otherwise, you should disregard that suggestion as being false.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.
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