Las Vegas Sun

September 16, 2019

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Jon Ralston:

The Times’ piece spells trouble for Berkley

There are always three barometers of any story damaging to a political figure: The substance of the piece, the ensuing damage control effort (which either ameliorates or exacerbates) and the political fallout.

What we know for certain is that Rep. Shelley Berkley knew this week’s New York Times investigative piece detailing her advocacy on issues involving her husband would not exactly enhance her chances of winning a U.S. Senate seat. What we also know for certain is that Berkley has never hidden the influence her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, has on her positions on health care — she mentions his strong views all the time. But what we did not know for certain until Eric Lipton’s devastating and probing piece is just how committed the congresswoman has been to her husband’s cause — or as the Times headline put it, “A Congresswoman’s Cause Is Often Her Husband’s Gain.”

(The piece is here.)

It might be easier to start with what this story is not about: Whether Berkley or the rest of the delegation should have intervened to try to save University Medical Center’s kidney transplant program. Of course they should have. (This is an issue near and dear to my heart, having had a kidney transplant and having wonderful care the last quarter-century — knocking on wood — from one of Lehrner’s partners, Dr. Marvin Bernstein.)

When Berkley and others, including her opponent, then-Rep. Dean Heller, intervened, it was to save a troubled program and when her husband bid on the contract to beef up the transplant department, he was, as the Times reported, the only bidder.

Should Berkley have let Heller or then-Rep. Jon Porter take the lead in trying to save the program, and even stayed out of it? Maybe. But then is she not doing her job?

The other part of Lipton’s story focuses on Lehrner’s political advocacy and his often-flip references to his marriage to Berkley — indeed, the couple’s public references, joking may they be, to their symbiosis has only made this worse.

This paragraph, too, showed perhaps too much symbiosis:

“When Dr. Lehrer assumed a series of leadership roles at the renal physicians group, Ms. Berkley’s agenda in Washington started to overlap with her husband’s. He became the single biggest contributor to the association’s political action committee, while also serving as its chairman. And she has received the largest share of its contributions, totaling $7,000 since 2007. Over all, kidney care doctors, companies and lobbyists have donated at least $140,000 to Ms. Berkley’s congressional campaigns.”

And then there was the propinquity with campaign contributions from the renal physicians PAC and a letter Berkley sent to Pete Stark, her Democratic colleague then chairing a key Ways and Means subcommittee. In the missive, she questioned “an untested bundled payment system” for dialysis patients — arguably one that could affect patient access but also her husband’s (and thus her) bottom line. And earlier this year, she wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services boss Donald Berwick, a missive that could be interpreted as trying to preserve care for patients but also one that could benefit her husband’s practice.

Protecting patients and helping her husband’s business. How does she do one without doing the other? Good question.

But that’s where the damage control comes in — or didn’t.

“I won’t stop fighting to give Nevadans access to affordable health care just because my husband is a doctor, just like I won’t stop standing up for veterans because my father served in World War II,” Berkley said in a statement.

What? Is this a parody? Equating her husband’s business that benefited from her legislation with her father being a war veteran? You must be joking.

Team Berkley also responded with a catalog of articles that it said made the case that the Times “ignored crucial facts in order to drive a misleading narrative about Congresswoman Shelley Berkley’s efforts to improve care for sick patients in Nevada.”

That is, that Berkley was only one member of an activist delegation trying to help UMC and that she was cleared by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. (The latter was quickly debunked when CREW’s chief, Melanie Sloan, told me Berkley should have “stayed out of it.”

I was also astounded that the ever-voluble Berkley refused to comment to the Times while her husband did, perhaps not helping the cause with his flippant quotes. It doesn’t matter if she is being unfairly maligned, as she argues. If so, her argument for silence is that the Times was out to get her. Really?

Berkley can garner testimonials from everyone in sight — Harry Reid says he still supports her! But the ads here write themselves, and we will find out next year if the congresswoman’s husband’s gain is actually her loss come November 2012.

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