Witness: Menendez pressed for Medicare policy change

Federal prosecutors called former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius to the witness stand Tuesday at the corruption trial of Sen. Bob Menendez. She testified about a meeting she had with Menendez in which he pressed for a Medicare policy change that would benefit his friend.

In 2012, Menendez was trying to reverse a policy that led Dr. Salomon Melgen to have to forfeit $8.9 million in Medicare reimbursements. Menendez asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to set up a meeting with Secretary Sibelius. They met in Reid’s office.

Testifying under subpoena, Sibelius said it was the only time in her five and a half years as secretary that Reid had summoned her to a meeting. At issue was Medicare demanding repayment from Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist and Menendez’s co-defendant in the trial. Melgen’s practice included treating patients with an injectable eye medicine called Lucentis. CDC guidelines say Lucentis should only be used once and then thrown away. Melgen would use one vial on three or four patients and then charge Medicare for that many vials. Each of which cost $2,000.

Prosecutor Peter Koski asked Sibelius what the meeting in Harry Reid’s office was about.

“It was about Sen. Menendez’s unhappiness that there was a policy that was unclear and unfair to providers. He wanted me to take some action to change it. I said, I thought the policy was clear — CDC had a patient safety warning on the medicine. Once opened, it shouldn’t be used again or there was a risk of infection … It was not a very satisfying meeting on either side,” Sibelius said.

On cross-examination, defense attorney Abbe Lowell got Sibelius to say that Melgen’s name was never mentioned, that the discussion was about the broader policy of wasting good medicine.

“No legislation came out of it?” Lowell asked, nodding at a recent Supreme Court decision that said bribery requires an official act. “No,” said Sibelius.

Federal prosecutors say Menendez did take official acts on behalf of Melgen in return for gifts, trips and campaign donations. The defense says it was all just good will between best friends.

Earlier, former Medicare Administrator Marilyn Tavenner described a meeting she had with Menendez on the same subject two months before the Sibelius meeting.

“He was not happy …,” she said of Menendez. “He was disappointed. There should be changes in the policy and he did not intend to let it stand and he would take it to the next step.”

That meant going to her boss, Sibelius, Tavenner said. But Tavenner, too, said there was no mention of Melgen by name in her meeting.

So, it was a mixed picture in court Tuesday, as the trial inches forward.