Menendez set up meeting about pal's Medicare dispute, ex-senator Harkin testifies

A former U.S. Senate colleague testified Wednesday that U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez -- a New Jersey Democrat on trial for corruption -- once arranged a meeting between the colleague and Menendez's wealthy friend, Dr. Salomon Melgen, to handle a Medicare billing dispute.

Tom Harkin, a Democrat who represented Iowa in the Senate for 30 years, retiring in 2015, said he recalled a meeting in 2011 – facilitated by Menendez – in which Harkin and Melgen discussed an $8.9 million Medicare dispute.

At the time, Harkin was chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee that was overseeing Medicare, Politico reported.

FILE: Dec. 17, 2012. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, speaks to reporters after a vote on Capitol Hill, in Washington.

FILE: Dec. 17, 2012. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, speaks to reporters after a vote on Capitol Hill, in Washington.  (REUTERS)

Harkin's testimony came during a trial in which Menendez is accused of using his power and influence to help Melgen in exchange for gifts and campaign contributions.

Harkin said he did not see the meeting with Melgen as problematic, telling jurors he agreed to meet the doctor out of “senatorial courtesy” to Menendez.

“If a senator asks you to meet with someone, you usually meet with them,” Harkin said in the Newark, N.J., courtroom.

Harkin said Melgen did most of the talking, adding that the doctor spoke about how an eye medicine called Lucentis -- with which he treated patients -- came in vials big enough to hold three to four doses, even though Food and Drug Administration and Medicare billing policies required them to hold a single dose, the New York Times reported.

Melgen reportedly used one vial for multiple doses, charging Medicare around $2,000 for each.

Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen arrives to the Federal court in Newark, New Jersey April 2, 2015. U.S. Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey was indicted on corruption charges, allegations that the high-ranking Democrat vowed to fight at a news conference on Wednesday night. Menendez was indicted by a grand jury in New Jersey for accepting gifts from Melgen in exchange for using the power of his Senate office to benefit Melgen's financial and personal interests, according to the court filing. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz - GF10000047382

Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen.  (Reuters)

Harkin said “two things stick out” when he recalls the meeting. He was curious why, given the FDA policy of just one dose per vial for the eye medicine, the drug company would use vials big enough for multiple doses.

“The other part of it is, if he’s treating three people and he’s charging [Medicare] for three, but he’s only paying for one vial, that doesn’t sound right to me either,” Harkin said.

During cross-examination, Harkin agreed with the defense, saying he did not do anything more about the issue other than just have the meeting with Melgen.

Earlier Wednesday, two officials from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) asserted that a Menendez staffer had tried to pressure Medicare staff into making payouts to Melgen, Politico reported.

Dr. Louis B. Jacques, who worked for the agency until 2014, said one of the senator's aides spoke with agency employees in 2009 and “asked that Medicare pay the disputed claims” to Melgen.

The witness described the Menendez staffer's tone as “pressing or argumentative or persistent.”

Jacques also said the Menendez aide told the agency employees that the matter was "very important to the senator. Dr. Melgen is a personal friend of the senator. Bad medicine is not illegal. Medicare should pay these claims.”