Bills aim to improve conditions at veterans centers
BY SHANNON MUCHMORE World Staff Writer
Saturday, February 16, 2013
2/16/13 at 5:46 AM
Pending state legislation would put state veterans centers back under the oversight of the state Health Department, make the director of the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs report to the governor and change the structure of the War Veterans Commission.
The state Department of Veterans Affairs has come under fire after a veteran was scalded in a whirlpool bath and died at the Claremore Veterans Center last year.
The department has pledged an overhaul to address problems, but the bills' author, Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Ardmore, is not impressed with what he's seen so far, he said.
Simpson led a legislative review of the department in October. Family members of residents of the state's veterans centers spoke of abuse and neglect at the centers, and employees said a culture of intimidation kept problems from being aired and addressed.
Since then the department has not taken steps to fix the troubles, Simpson said.
"I haven't seen any response from ODVA that tells me they're responding to the problems," he said in a recent phone interview.
The department is seeking more than $250,000 in additional money next year for pay raises for five administrators. Simpson said the raises are excessive.
One of the bills would make the seven veterans centers once again subject to oversight by the state Health Department.
This was the case until 2003, when legislation removed the state from the inspection process, leaving the centers to be inspected only by a contractor for the federal government.
"We think we need some state oversight," Simpson said.
State long-term care ombudsman Esther Houser said she supports the legislation, which she said would be excellent for the residents.
It would allow for unannounced inspections, and residents would be able to file complaints and have better protections, she said.
"They would have a much better chance of having actual inspections and actual oversight over the facility," she said.
Another bill would create an education and training program aimed at promoting longevity of employees at the veterans centers. The Department of Veterans Affairs would pay an employee's salary and tuition in exchange for a promise from the employee to work at the center for a certain period of time, Simpson said.
One complaint heard during the legislative review was about the high turnover of employees.
"Our hope is to stabilize the workforce there at ODVA," Simpson said.
Both of those bills passed unanimously out of the Senate Veterans Committee but were referred to the Appropriations Committee.
Other legislation in the works would make the Department of Veterans Affairs' executive director report to the governor. The governor would appoint the director, subject to approval by the Senate.
Simpson said he is "very optimistic" that all the bills will pass the Senate.
Sen. Kim David, R-Porter, who worked with Simpson on the legislative review, said she is fully supportive of the measures.
She thinks they have the potential to save lives and that the veterans at the centers deserve the best, she said.
"Here we have a class of individuals who served their country and should be well respected and taken care of for that," she said.
Shannon Muchmore 918-581-8378