NEWARK – Sen. Bob Menendez made “aggressive” and “adversarial” arguments against what he said were contradictory Medicare billing practices during a 2012 meeting with the Health and Human Services secretary in then- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office, a former Medicare official testified in the senator’s corruption trial today.
Though Menendez never spoke the name of his friend and current co-defendant Dr. Salomon Melgen, it was clear to Secretary Kathleen Sebilius that Melgen’s overbilling case was part of the discussion, said Jonathan Blum, then the principal deputy administrator at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).
“I found his tone to be very angry and very hostile,” Blum said of Menendez. “I felt I was being put on the defensive and it was a very angry exchange.”
The meeting with Sebilius came after a 2009 phone call between Blum and Menendez about Melgen that went similarly awry, Blum testified.
“It was definitely a call that stood out to me,” Blum said. “The tone I thought was aggressive. The tone was very angry and I could tell by the phone call he did not like my answers.”
Menendez eventually hung up on him, Blum said.
At issue in both conversations was multi-dosing, a practice Medicare ruled was improper in Melgen’s case when the doctor triple and quadruple billed the government for vials of eye solution he was able to squeeze three or four doses out of.
But Menendez argued that Medicare had contradictory policies on multi-dosing, allowing doctors to stretch the dose amounts on some drugs but not others, and said the agency was not applying its policies consistently.
At one point during the meeting in Reid’s office, Menendez tried to catch Blum in a lie by showing him a deposition where Blum had supposedly admitted the contradiction.
Blum wasn’t the one in the deposition, Blum told Menendez, and the senator moved onto another line of argument.
The August 2012 meeting was set up by Reid and held in Reid’s office inside the Capitol building. Melgen did not attend. Prosecutors have not yet called Reid or Sebilius to testify.
With nothing settled, Sebilius was the one to end the meeting with Menendez and Reid by saying she had another appointment. On the way out, Menendez told her he was not letting go of the matter.
“He said to the secretary on the way out he was not going to let the issue rest, and he was going to continue to use his role on the Senate finance committee to press the issue,” Blum said.
Blum said the calls with Menendez were unique in his tenure with CMS, in that no one else subject to a judgment they owed money to the government asked for a change to the rules.
“There was no other person or physician or party that came to the agency or wrote to the agency to advocate a different policy being followed,” Blum testified.
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