Going on the offensive in the face of a House ethics investigation, U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley on Monday released three new TV ads in her U.S. Senate race that promote her work to preserve Medicare coverage for dialysis patients and to keep open a kidney transplant center in Las Vegas.
Two of the campaign commercials feature kidney transplant patients who praise Berkley and dismiss the notion that her advocacy was meant to financially help her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner. A nephrologist, Lehrner has dialysis centers in Southern Nevada and a business interest in the kidney center at the University Medical Center.
"When people say Shelley Berkley put money in her own pocket to keep this transplant center open, that's ridiculous," says Stanley Copeland, a kidney recipient in one 30-second spot. "It's all about, you know, taking care of people in Nevada. Keeping people alive. Saving lives. That's what it's all about."
One of the Berkley ads turns the issue back on her Republican opponent, U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, for voting twice for a GOP budget plan that would have turned Medicare into a voucherlike private insurance system for people younger than 55. Current retirees and those nearing retirement wouldn't be affected.
"Why would Dean Heller oppose protecting Medicare?" the ad narrator asks. "Because Heller wants to end guaranteed Medicare coverage."
The new Berkley ads began running at the end of last week and during broadcasts of the Olympic Games in London, ensuring higher viewership. Her campaign said the three spots are running statewide.
Heller's campaign, too, is running a TV ad during the Olympics focused on the House Ethics Committee investigation into whether Berkley crossed the line, particularly because she didn't publicly disclose her husband's financial interest in the kidney center and in dialysis treatment centers at the time.
The Heller ad, which began running in mid-July, notes that Berkley was named "one of the most corrupt members of Congress" by a nonprofit watchdog group for pushing legislation to help kidney doctors such as her husband.
"Shelley Berkley took care of herself and she got caught," the Heller ad narrator says.
The House Ethics Committee, on a unanimous bipartisan vote, announced July 9 that a panel would look into Berkley's kidney and dialysis advocacy, which was first detailed in a front-page New York Times article. The outcome of the investigation isn't expected to be known by the Nov. 6 election, putting Berkley's campaign under an ethics cloud as she seeks to evict Heller from his appointed Senate seat.
Both Berkley and Heller joined together in 2008 to save the kidney center at UMC after federal authorities threatened to close it, largely because of its higher-than-average death rate among patients. Then-Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., also was part of a letter-writing effort that saved the program, which is now a success.
Separately, Berkley worked to maintain federal reimbursement rates for Medicare coverage of dialysis treatment and co-sponsored at least five House bills related to the matter. She also wrote a letter to Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., chairman of a panel with jurisdiction over Medicare, asking him to "move carefully" in considering changes in how doctors providing dialysis treatment are compensated.
Berkley has said her only concern was patient care because Nevadans would have had to travel out of state if the kidney center had closed. Her campaign said the seven-term congresswoman has sponsored 114 pieces of health care legislation, suggesting her focus was much broader than kidney treatment.
The Berkley campaign believes she can overcome the ethics cloud if she shifts the subject back to her efforts to preserve Medicare, both for dialysis patients and for future retirees.
Lehrner hasn't commented on the issue and has referred questions about the kidney center to Berkley's campaign. Berkley's husband rarely is seen on the campaign trail, although Lehrner was at her side when she publicly celebrated her easy June 12 Democratic primary victory. He wore a Berkley campaign T-shirt.
Asked whether her husband would join her on the campaign trail more often, Berkley said Monday that he is a busy doctor who works 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and she respects "the role he plays in saving lives."
"He doesn't covet the limelight. He's a behind-the-scenes, no-nonsense guy," Berkley said, adding, "When he's needed on the campaign trail, I know he'll be there for me."
Monday afternoon, Berkley visited the East Las Vegas Senior Center to celebrate the 47th anniversary of Medicare being signed into law. About three dozen supporters attended. In a nearby room, about two dozen senior citizens continued their poker games rather than take a break to hear Berkley.
"I will make sure nobody messes with your Medicare and nobody privatizes your Social Security," Berkley said after pounding Heller for saying he was "proud" to have voted twice for the GOP plan to change Medicare.
"He thinks that's something to be proud of," Berkley said. "I think that's something to be ashamed of."
The Heller campaign scoffed at what it called Berkley's "photo-op" to celebrate Medicare after she voted for President Barack Obama's health care plan, a plan the campaign said reduced Medicare spending by $500 billion.
The campaign also slammed Berkley for repeatedly accusing Heller of trying to end or kill Medicare, a charge independent fact-check organizations have called misleading or outright false.
"Seven-term Congresswoman Shelley Berkley voted to cut Medicare by $500 billion. She also voted several times to give 15 Washington bureaucrats the power to make decisions about medical care for seniors," said Chandler Smith, spokeswoman for the Heller campaign. "So far, Congresswoman Berkley has based her entire campaign on the 'Lie of the Year' in a sad and desperate attempt to distract from her failed policies."
The $500 billion in Medicare savings over 10 years would come from reducing overpayments to health care providers and hospitals, and not by hitting Medicare beneficiaries in their own pocketbooks.
The Medicare savings were intended to help pay for new benefits in Obama's health care law.
Berkley noted that the GOP budget plan Heller voted for also included $500 billion in Medicare savings.
"So that is so nonsensical," she said of the attack on her. "He not only voted for it once, he voted for it twice."
Contact reporter Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal. com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.