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Trial set to begin in ghoulish Medicare fraud case

He’s been free for nearly two years after posting an astonishing $10 million bond.

But most of the patients who ended up at Ed Novak’s West Side hospital weren’t so fortunate.

Poor, elderly and vulnerable, many found themselves driven by ambulance across the city, past countless better hospitals, to Sacred Heart, the maggot-infested, substandard facility where some of them died, federal prosecutors say.

Their doctors would never have sent them to Sacred Heart if Novak, who owned the hospital and acted as its CEO, wasn’t dishing out illegal kickbacks so that he could reap millions of dollars in Medicare and Medicaid payments, the feds say.

Novak, 60, of Park Ridge, has vehemently denied the allegations, which forced the closure of his hospital in 2013. Now, he finally has the chance to fight back. His long-awaited trial is due to begin Tuesday morning.

Dressed in a dark business suit and seated beside two co-defendants, Sacred Heart administrators Roy Payawal and Clarence Nagelvoort, Novak on Monday paid close attention as U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly grilled potential jurors about any biases they might have against hospitals or nursing homes.

The case hit the front pages in April 2013, when federal agents launched a high-profile probe of the hospital, looking for evidence of the alleged kickback scheme, and, more disturbingly, claiming that patients at Sacred Heart were subjected to unnecessary and sometimes fatal surgery so that Novak could cash in on Medicare and Medicaid payments.

Though those ghoulish allegations led to a series of civil lawsuits, they never resulted in criminal charges, and won’t come into evidence during what’s expected to be a six-week trial. And Kennelly has made several rulings that bolster Novak’s defense.

He barred evidence that a doctor at the hospital referred to the hospital’s surgeon, Dr. Vittorio Guerriero, as a “butcher” who wanted to cut patients and also nixed evidence that nurses in the intensive care unit at Sacred Heart sprayed patients with “Off!” bug repellent to keep flies at bay.

But recent cooperation deals agreed to by two doctors tied to the alleged kickback scheme, Noemi Velgara and Anthony J. Puorro, have hurt Novak’s defense.

The doctors and other witnesses are expected to testify that Novak — who’s worth an estimated $25 million — disguised kickbacks as rental payments, teaching fees and other legitimate expenses. Secretly recorded conversations of Novak allegedly describing how he planned to hide the scam from authorities are also expected to form part of the case.

“Just keep us kosher, you know, that’s all just to cover our asses,” he allegedly instructed an employee in one taped conversation.

If convicted, he faces up to five years behind bars for each of eight counts of fraud.