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1 in 3 state veterans center doctors has marred record

by Andrew Knittle Modified: March 16, 2014 at 1:00 pm •  Published: March 16, 2014
/articleid/3943848/1/pictures/2376500">Photo - 
Norman Veterans Center. Photo by Steve Sisney, The Oklahoman
 <strong>STEVE SISNEY - 
Norman Veterans Center. Photo by Steve Sisney, The Oklahoman STEVE SISNEY - THE OKLAHOMAN

Court records on file at the Cleveland County District Court show that Lucio was the medical director at the Norman facility for years.

Toward the end of her time with the agency, an unskilled nurse’s aide was arrested, charged and eventually convicted of sex crimes involving two of the most vulnerable residents in the care of the state agency. Jeremy Craig Lyday, who is now 30, was sentenced to 12 years in prison in December 2012 after it was determined that he raped and sodomized two dementia-stricken patients in 2011.

Lucio testified at Lyday’s criminal trial, serving as one of the key witnesses for prosecutors. She was fired the day after she gave testimony, records show.

A review of trial transcripts reveals that Lucio’s past and her history of addiction were not called into question during the legal proceedings.

During testimony, Lucio said that she was the medical director at the Norman center and that she had only three other doctors on staff.

McReynolds, who had just taken over his job as director of the agency when Lucio testified in court, said the doctor’s firing had nothing to do with the case against Lyday.

“That was just a coincidence as far as I know,” he said.

Like most of the doctors fired by the department, the precise reason Lucio was terminated is not a matter of public record.

And while Lucio was fired by the agency on Dec. 7, 2012, her probation was lifted by the state Medical Board in May 2013, less than six months after she was terminated.

Other doctors let their demons directly affect the residents at the centers.

In 2011, Michael Whinery, a doctor of osteopathy, was cited when his behaviors began to impact the men and women he was being paid to care for.

According to a records on file with the Oklahoma Board of Osteopathic Examiners, Whinery began to display signs of substance abuse after he missed several days of work without good reason.

Board investigators would look into Whinery at this time and found out he was being prescribed large amounts of addictive narcotics from a doctor in Norman. He also was cited in 2010 for unlawfully prescribing addictive painkillers to fellow employees at the Claremore Veterans Center.

Staff members at the center also began reporting that Whinery smelled like alcohol in the mornings when showed up to work during this time.

Perhaps the worst episode, especially given a doctor’s oath, took place in early 2011.

“During the first quarter of 2011, when Dr. Whinery was on-call and the staff needed him at the center, Dr. Whinery failed to respond to their calls,” a complaint against Whinery stated.

“When staff went to his house they found him there asleep.”

Lucio now works for a well-known hosptial in Oklahoma City. Ek, who also holds a medical license in Illinois, has since moved out of Oklahoma.

Whinery still works at the Claremore Veterans Center, where he’s been an employee since 2000.

An ongoing problem

McReynolds said the agency, which is one of the largest in Oklahoma with more than 2,000 employees, will likely continue to hire doctors with sketchy pasts well into the future. He said getting more money from the legislature is always a challenge.

“You hate to say it, but money has a lot to do with it,” McReyonlds said, adding that things have improved since he took over less than two years ago.

“It’s not like we can go out and spend whatever we want to spend. We are definitely at a disadvantage when it’s time to hire (a new doctor). We definitely have restrictions on what we can offer a candidate.”

Money is a constant issue for the agency, but McReynolds said finding a doctor without any kind of disciplinary history is nearly impossible these days.

“Doctors are human beings, they make mistakes like the rest of us,” McReynolds said. “But it is difficult, these days, to see an applicant come in here and be qualified and have the necessary experience, but then they have these marks on their background. At that point, you have to make a decision.”

State Sen. Frank Simpson, who is the chairman of the Senate Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, said getting more money for Veterans Affairs — and pretty much any other state agency out there — is “extremely challenging.”

Simpson said he has helped to pass legislation to improve veteran care and oversight of the agency’s employees, but he said more work is needed.

He said the recent case of Kenneth A. Adams, a former physician assistant at the Claremore Veterans Center who is accused of allowing two men under his care to die, is drawing further attention to the problem of veteran care.

Adams was bound over for trial following a preliminary hearing on Tuesday. He is set to be arraigned next month on two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of caretaker neglect.

Prosecutors allege Adams neglected his medical duties at the veterans center so severely that Louis Arterberry, 86, and Jay Minter, 85, died because of it.

Simpson said Adams’ wife was an administrator at the center, near Tulsa, and that she kept his poor work performance from being documented.

“I’m disappointed that we can’t find a higher quality of physician to take care of our heroes ... As I move forward ... one of the things we have to continue to focus on is the level of pay for not only doctors, but also skilled nurses at our centers. Those are two critical areas where we’re not doing a good job finding quality folks.”

Like McReynolds, Simpson also believes that high turnover among department staff is another problem that needs to be solved. The elected official, who took office in 2010, said high turnover has a direct impact on the care of veterans.

“It’s hard to retain good nurses and other medical staff when they can typically go out and find another job that makes anywhere from 20 to 50 percent more than we’re able to get them,” Simpson said.

by Andrew Knittle
Investigative Reporter
Andrew Knittle has covered state water issues, tribal concerns and major criminal proceedings during his career as an Oklahoma journalist. He has won reporting awards from the state's Associated Press bureau and prides himself on finding a real...
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