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Trump granted clemency to Medicare fraudsters before vowing to cut entitlement program abuse

In an attempt to clean up comments he made this week about “cutting” entitlement programs, former president Donald Trump has vowed in recent days that he would reduce spending on Social Security and Medicare by targeting waste and fraud in those programs.

However, a review of Trump’s record shows that, in the closing months of his presidency, he used his clemency powers to help several people convicted in major Medicare fraud cases, including commuting the sentence of a man the Justice Department had described as having “orchestrated one of the largest health care fraud schemes in U.S. history.”

In his last year in office, Trump commuted the sentences of at least five people who collectively filed nearly $1.6 billion in fraudulent claims through Medicare or Medicaid.

Among them was Judith Negron, the former owner of a Miami-area mental health company who was sentenced in 2011 to 35 years in prison for her role in filing $205 million in fraudulent Medicare claims and ordered to pay more than $87 million in restitution. Trump commuted her sentence in February 2020.

Trump also granted clemency that year to Daniela Gozes-Wagner, a Houston woman who was sentenced in 2019 to 20 years in prison for helping falsely bill more than $28 million in claims to Medicare and Medicaid for medical tests that either never happened or were unnecessary. Those tests supposedly took place at 28 testing facilities that turned out to be empty offices — and prosecutors said Gozes-Wagner went so far as to hire “seat warmers” at those offices who were instructed to notify her if Medicare investigators arrived.

In December 2020, Trump commuted the sentence of Philip Esformes, who had been convicted in 2019 “for his role in the largest health care fraud scheme ever charged by the Justice Department, involving over $1.3 billion in fraudulent claims to Medicare and Medicaid for services that were not provided, were not medically necessary or were procured through the payment of kickbacks,” the department said.

Esformes was sentenced to 20 years in prison — but was freed after serving about 4½ years, after Trump granted him clemency. The White House noted at the time that, while in prison, Esformes was “devoted to prayer” and “in declining health.” Esformes was photographed hosting and dancing at his daughter’s lavish wedding days later.

Last month, Esformes pleaded guilty to Medicare fraud again after being retried on unsettled charges that were not included in Trump’s clemency order. As part of a plea agreement, Esformes was sentenced to the time he had already served.

In the final days of his presidency, Trump granted clemency to Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor who had been sentenced to 17 years in prison after being convicted for his role in defrauding Medicare out of $42 million; and to John Estin Davis, a Tennessee health-care executive who had been sentenced the year before to 42 months in prison after being convicted for his role in filing over $4.6 million in fraudulent claims to Medicare.

Louis Saccoccio, CEO of the National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association, called the Trump clemency orders “disappointing” and noted that the cases were not minor ones and probably took prosecutors a lot of time and resources to investigate.

“These are complicated cases, and usually it will take months if not, in many cases, years — maybe two, three years — to bring these cases to trial,” Saccoccio said. “Obviously, you want to send a message with respect to health-care fraud that it’s not going to be tolerated.”

Saccoccio said that in addition to the financial consequences of Medicare fraud, many cases result in patient harm. Saccoccio cited the case of Melgen, the Florida ophthalmologist, who prosecutors said would perform and bill Medicare for unnecessary injections and laser treatments on his elderly patients after falsely diagnosing them with macular degeneration.

Trump’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump has said for years that he will protect the popular programs, breaking with conservatives who argue that the United States should reduce benefits to keep the programs financially solvent.

Before the 2022 midterm elections, for instance, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) publicly unveiled a plan that would have raised taxes and cut Social Security and Medicare benefits — a proposal that was swiftly shot down by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has previously suggested that Social Security and Medicare be eliminated as federal entitlement programs and instead become programs approved by Congress on an annual basis as discretionary spending.

President Biden has repeatedly used such Republican proposals to paint the entire party as wanting to cut Social Security and Medicare, including recently during his State of the Union address and in his proposed 2025 budget.

Trump’s claims that he would tackle waste and abuse in entitlement programs came after an interview Monday with CNBC’s “Squawk Box” in which he was asked if he had changed his outlook on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

“First of all, there is a lot you can do in terms of entitlements, in terms of cutting, and in terms of, also, the theft and bad management of entitlements,” Trump responded. “Tremendous bad management of entitlements. There’s tremendous amounts of things and numbers of things you can do.”

The remarks gave Biden new ammunition in their 2024 election rematch. Trump’s campaign said he was talking about cutting “waste and fraud” as the Biden team attacked.

On Wednesday — just after winning enough delegates to secure the Republican presidential nomination — Trump told the conservative website Breitbart that he would not do anything to jeopardize Social Security or Medicare.

“There’s so many things we can do,” Trump said. “There’s so much cutting and so much waste in so many other areas, but I’ll never do anything to hurt Social Security.”

As president, Trump proposed some budget cuts to safety-net benefits such as a Social Security program aiding workers with disabilities. Administration officials said in one budget proposal that they would cut spending by testing “new approaches to increase labor force participation.”

Hannah Knowles contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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