Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011 | 2 a.m.
To Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., the fact that some health care policies she has advocated in Congress could benefit her husband’s kidney care medical practice is little more than happenstance in her broader efforts to ensure Nevadans have quality health care.
To Republicans gearing up a campaign to defeat her in the U.S. Senate race next year, it’s a story line in the narrative they hope to spin of Berkley as an unethical Washington insider who sees nothing wrong with using her office for her family’s financial benefit.
In a front-page story Tuesday, The New York Times detailed Berkley’s work on behalf of Nevada’s kidney care specialists, actions that align with the business interests of her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, a Las Vegas nephrologist.
Berkley has long sought to protect Medicare reimbursement for kidney transplants and dialysis, sponsoring at least five bills to expand federal reimbursement rates, according to the article. She also played a key role in persuading federal regulators not to shutter the state’s only kidney transplant center at University Medical Center in the wake of its problems caring for transplant patients.
Lehrner’s practice has the only contract to provide care at the transplant center, a competitively bid contract worth $738,000.
Reacting to the story, Berkley issued a statement accusing the Times of ignoring important contextual elements, such as the fact Nevada’s entire delegation, including then-U.S. Reps. Jon Porter and Dean Heller, both R-Nev., urged regulators to save the transplant center.
Berkley has also been a fierce advocate for funding for treatment of cancer, hepatitis and osteoporosis — a disease she suffers from.
“While The New York Times may not care about the health care needs of my fellow Nevadans, I do,” she said in a written statement. “I will never stop fighting on behalf of my constituents just because my husband is a doctor.”
Berkley was unavailable to comment, according to her campaign manager.
Although her campaign works to marginalize the potential conflict of interest, Republicans see a toehold in her campaign against Heller in next year’s Senate race. They hope to paint Berkley as so out of touch that she sees no problem working to secure federal funding that could benefit her husband’s business.
The revelation, they will argue, fits with a 1996 incident in which she wrote memos advising her former employer, Las Vegas Sands boss Sheldon Adelson to bestow political favors on two Clark County commissioners and to contribute to judicial candidates to ensure future favorable treatment.
“She’s never had anyone call her on these things,” one Republican strategist said.
Indeed, Berkley hasn’t faced a seriously contested election in more than a decade, easily winning the heavily Democratic 1st Congressional District over and over.
Berkley’s memos to Adelson were widely reported in her first congressional campaign in 1998, but had little effect on voters. The same won’t be true of a statewide Senate bid when Heller and Republican groups spend millions to paint Berkley as a being ethically challenged.
“She’s had to weather it in a 20-point Democratic district,” the Republican strategist said. “She’s never had to weather it in a tossup election.”
It’s true Berkley’s record hasn’t received the scrutiny that a contested statewide race will bring.
But political scientist Eric Herzik said Berkley is well positioned to withstand the scrutiny.
“So she happens to be married to a doctor,” he said. “She saved a transplant clinic. If I were her, I would be out there right now spinning it that way. ‘Yes, it was flawed, and I helped fix it.’ ”
Conflict of interest accusations don’t always have purchase with voters. Take the special congressional election, for example. Republican Mark Amodei enjoys a wide lead in the heavily GOP district despite a long record of conflicts between his public office and private profession.
“It’s screened by your partisan bias,” Herzik said on whether ethical issues resonate with voters. “Republicans are more than willing to dismiss Mark Amodei’s conflict of interest. Democrats will do the same thing with Shelley.”
Still, voters can expect to hear about it for the next year.
“This will be an ugly campaign,” Herzik said. “It will be cynical, and her record will be distorted in 30-second sound bites as much as Heller’s record will be distorted in 30-second sound bites.”