Las Vegas Sun

June 2, 2015

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Jon Ralston:

You can’t transplant the facts

While the Democrats shamelessly employ oily techniques to distract from Rep. Shelley Berkley’s troubles and the Republicans disingenuously try to make her the second unethical coming of, well, John Ensign, let’s not let partisanship get in the way of the real story.

More than 14 months before the election, the Republicans will do everything they can to keep questions about Berkley’s potential conflict of interest alive (they gratuitously filed an ethics complaint this week) while Democrats will be unrelenting in trying to change the subject (they cleverly revived the Sen. Dean Heller/Big Oil meme and unctuously used a transplant patient as a prop this week).

Standard operating procedure, perhaps. But one aspect of this controversy has bothered me since The New York Times first wrote about Berkley’s advocacy for causes that could benefit her nephrologist husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner — part of it, I acknowledge, is personal, but part of it is professional, too. And that is Berkley’s attempts, along with the rest of the delegation, to save the University Medical Center kidney transplant program.

I continue to believe serious questions exist about whether Berkley went too far in other instances contacting (via letter) a House Ways and Means subcommittee chairman, a Cabinet official and a federal regulator to push for changes in Medicare payments that could directly affect her bottom line. (See details in the Times story, “A Congresswoman’s Cause Is Often Her Husband’s Gain.”

While she has disclosed Lehrner’s occupation during committee hearings, Berkley has not consistently been transparent, either because she foolishly believed “everyone knows it” or because she is in denial about how egregious the appearance is. So I think Berkley needs to explain why she went to extraordinary lengths on some of those issues, something she has so far failed to do beyond hollow statements about preserving patient access.

The transplant program at the county hospital is a different story. I know this might disappoint some of the partisans, but how about some facts?

Whether it belonged at the public facility — Sunrise had abandoned its program — the imperative of having a transplant center in bourgeoning Southern Nevada is not in doubt. It’s clear that at both hospitals insufficient resources were allocated — now there’s a new Nevada story — and so regulators had threatened to shut down the program four years ago by cutting off Medicare funding.

If this is not a time to call your congressman — or congressmen — I don’t know what is. And so, UMC officials called Berkley and others.

Yes, Lehrner had the contract to provide nephrology services — including transplants — at the hospital. But there is not a scintilla of evidence that Berkley helped him get that contract, and indeed, he was the only bidder.

As for the quality of care provided by Lehrner’s company, Kidney Specialists of Southern Nevada, here’s where this gets personal. Lehrner is not my doctor, but his partner, Marvin Bernstein, is.

I had a transplant at the Cleveland Clinic before I moved to Las Vegas in 1984 and since that time, Bernstein has provided me with wonderful care. (Bernstein more recently has tried to save the transplant program, even though he has plenty on his plate.)

I have no doubt Berkley should have done more to disclose her husband’s financial relationship when she whirred into action to try to save the program. My reporting indicates Berkley did not inform the rest of the delegation, which mobilized with her to try to preserve the transplant center, of her husband’s role at UMC. This was a mistake.

All three Nevada congressfolk — Berkley, then-Rep. Jon Porter and then-Rep. Dean Heller — signed a firm, plaintive letter on Oct. 24, 2008, to Medicare administrator Kerry Weems. That may be an inconvenient truth for the Republicans, but it’s a truth nonetheless. And I believe Heller and Porter would have behaved the same way — done everything they could to salvage the program — even had they known of Lehrner’s involvement.

I am hardly surprised at the politics playing out now, especially with a Senate seat at stake that could remove Harry Reid’s majority scepter. Only reflexive responses are allowed from now until November 2012. (See here)

The maneuver Wednesday to trot out a man who received a transplant after the program was saved proved gut-wrenching, but in a sickening way. The utility of the program has not been at issue — the congresswoman’s actions have — and Berkley knows that. And after trying to say the whole delegation saved the program, suddenly this poor guy was used to essentially declare, “Shelley saved me!”

Spare me.

But they won’t. This Senate bid is the first competitive race Berkley has had since 1998 in her cozy, safe House district. With the stakes this high, it is foolish for her — or pundits — to believe any facts will get in the way of a good story.

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