Sen. Frank Simpson (copy)

Simpson

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Senate on Tuesday passed a bill that would allow for the relocation of the veterans center in Talihina in the wake of two high-profile deaths.

Senate Bill 544 initially failed, but Sen. Frank Simpson, the author, held it on a motion to reconsider the vote by which it failed. It then passed with the title off, a procedural move that requires it to return to the Senate if it passes the House.

Simpson attributed the measure’s initial failure to misinformation about the bill.

He said the recent deaths at the Oklahoma Veterans Center at Talihina were related to staffing issues.

The Tulsa World began an investigation after the Oct. 3 death of Vietnam veteran Owen Reese Peterson, who was found with maggots in his body and later died from sepsis at the facility. Four employees initially resigned, but one was soon rehired at another Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs-run veterans nursing home in Lawton.

An ODVA internal investigative report into Peterson’s death concluded that a nurse practitioner and assistant administrator “should have submitted” their resignations over the death also. Both are still top-ranking employees at the home.

Another questionable death at Talihina occurred Jan. 31 when 70-year-old Leonard Smith of Sapulpa, an advanced dementia patient, choked to death after being given food, fluids and medication and then was found with a plastic bag lodged deep in his throat. He was living in the locked-down special needs unit.

Investigators from the Oklahoma State Department of Health found that the center “failed to provide sufficient staff” to protect Smith’s safety and failed to investigate an earlier incident in November in which Smith apparently ingested an inedible item.

In that case, ODVA says that four Talihina employees have been reported to their respective licensing boards for possible disciplinary action in the case.

Simpson said the state is warehousing veterans in old facilities.

“We owe it to our veterans to provide a better quality of life,” he said.

The measure would authorize the ODVA to relocate the center in Talihina within 40 miles of the current location to a town with at least 8,000 residents.

Simpson said the facility currently has a difficult time retaining staff.

He said a new facility would cost $55 million to $65 million, but the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs would pay for 65 percent of it.

The state could use bond money to pay for the rest of the facility, Simpson said.

Sen. Joseph Silk, R-Broken Bow, debated against the measure, saying moving the facility was a big step that would affect hundreds of people. He suggested that lawmakers further study the issue.

Sen. Randy Bass, D-Lawton, said a lot of money was recently spent on the existing facility, including a new roof, sidewalks and other improvements.

But Simpson said the state had no choice because it was a life and safety issue and needed to be fixed to maintain certification.

“Talihina turnover is excessive,” Simpson said.

Andrea Eger contributed to this story.

Capitol Bureau Writer

Barbara has covered the statehouse since 1994. She covers politics, appellate courts and state agencies. She has worked for the Tulsa World since 1990. Phone: 405-528-2465