Did Nevada Congresswoman Shelley Berkley advocate for a substandard kidney treatment center to stay open so that she could look out for kidney patients in the Silver State? Or did she do so in order to get more silver for the “Jumpin’ Jalapeno” slot machine?
On Monday, the House ethics committee, a 10-member panel comprised equally of Democrats and Republicans, disclosed that it had appointed a formal investigative panel to look into allegations that Berkley used her office to advocate for policies that helped her husband’s medical practice.
The seven-term congresswoman is set to face off against GOP Senator Dean Heller for his seat in November. At the center of the controversy is the kidney center at University Medical Center in Las Vegas. In 2008, concerned about the high death rate for patients receiving kidney treatment there (“more than twice the expected level,” according the New York Times), federal regulators were looking to shut it down. The contract was extended following Berkley’s intervention.
As it happens, Berkley’s husband, Dr. Lawrence Lehrner, does business with the Center and stood to financially benefit from its remaining open (and indeed he has; according to the New York Times, “the contract between Dr. Lehrner’s medical practice and the kidney transplant center, University Medical Center, was expanded to a $738,000-a-year deal after the transplant center was saved.”) Dios Mio, Shelley, that’s a lot of chips!
Now, the Congresswoman maintains she would have advocated for the Center to remain open regardless of her husband’s dealings with it and that “[her] only concern was to provide good health care in the state of Nevada for the people that live here. That's it.” The Center is home to Nevada’s only kidney transplant program. And to be fair, following the efforts of Berkley and others to keep it open, “conditions at the center … have since improved,” according to the Times, which declines to quantify this improvement. (Given that before Shelley’s efforts, deaths were more than twice the level expected, might improvement mean that deaths are only one and a half times more likely than at comparable facilities? And if so, might Nevadans in need of kidney treatment be better off joining Shelley at the slot machines and praying for a payout big enough to finance a trip to another state for treatment?)
Her campaign’s top aide said in a statement released to Politico that Berkley was “pleased” with the Ethics Committee’s decision to move ahead with a formal investigation. “We are pleased with the committee’s decision to conduct a full and fair investigation, which will ensure all the facts are reviewed. We are confident that ultimately it will be clear that Congresswoman Berkley’s one and only concern was for the health and well-being of Nevada’s patients,” said Jessica Mackler, Berkley’s campaign manager, who added that in advocating for the Center to stay open, Berkley joined other members of Congress, including Heller.
So did Berkley act with a sincere concern for Nevada’s kidney patients? (As she claims she did, and would have, regardless of her husband’s financial interests?) Or, did she figure that a little extra cash equaled the chance to play a few more “Mariachi Madness” slots and down some extra mojitos poolside at the Bellagio with Larry? (At the expense of keeping alive a facility that should have been, well … keeping more people alive?). That’s the House ethics committee’s job to ascertain. But one things is for sure: Democrats have now joined the ranks of Republicans in crying, “Shelley, you got some splainin’ to do!”