The commission overseeing the state Veterans Affairs Department approved a plan Thursday restructuring the agency, which includes a more aggressive approach to make sure Oklahoma's veterans are getting federal benefits owed them.
About 52 percent of the nearly 1,400 veterans in the state's veterans centers are receiving money from nonmilitary service-connected pensions, James Pass, the agency's veterans service officer, told members of the War Veterans Commission during Thursday's special meeting.
Maximizing the federal benefits paid to veterans in the veterans centers could increase the state's allocation from the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department by about $1 million a month, he said. The state Veterans Affairs Department receives about $4.2 million a month to care for veterans.
John McReynolds, interim executive director of the state Veterans Affairs Department, said the extra federal funds would be used to make improvements at the center, buy equipment and increase salaries of nurses and medical staff to be competitive with those offered by the private sector.
“We can do things with that money and put it right back into the veterans centers and put their quality of life as good as we can possibly make it,” he said.
The increased federal payments also would help veterans' spouses, many of whom are using money from pension plans or their own retirement plans to pay for a part of the veterans' care, Pass said.
Pass made an inquiry into each of the veterans centers, which showed that claims are not being properly developed, he said. The only claims being filed in the centers are nonmilitary service-connected pensions.
Veterans in the centers are not receiving the federal benefits they are entitled to because of the underdeveloped claims, he said. The veterans centers are failing to submit proper claims based on the veteran's disability history.
And some veterans don't provide information or seek all the benefits they're owed, he said.
“They're a proud group of people,” Pass said.
Veterans are being denied service-connected compensation because they are not showing up for scheduled examinations or their claims are being denied because they are not responding to requests for information.
Veterans at the centers read their own mail and have difficulty understanding what is being asked of them from the federal veterans agency, he said. They often can't get the guidance they need from admissions workers or other staff at the center.
“These letters are not easy to understand.”
In some cases, veterans don't open the letters. “If you don't answer the mail, you're going to get denied,” Pass said.
About the plan
Commissioners approved a plan that would place a service officer in each of the veterans centers who would work with veterans and staff to make sure veterans submit their service records, including any injuries while serving in the military, to the U.S. Veterans Affairs.
McReynolds said plans are to hire the service officers from among the agency's 2,000 employees. The agency has about $200,000 in leftover funds from the 2012 fiscal year that could be used for training and other costs.
“Maybe we can't do all seven of them right now. But we can get them to split duties where they're pretty close together,” McReynolds said.
The service officer at each center would check each veteran's file to make sure the veteran is getting all benefits owed, he said.
Many veterans are not forthcoming about injuries they received during combat, he said. The service officer also would talk with spouses. “A lot of times the spouse knows more about the veteran than he does,” he said.
The restructuring plan also calls for putting four regional directors in place. McReynolds said the commission will request additional funds next year to pay for those new positions.
The restructuring comes as the Veterans Affairs Department has come under scrutiny after allegations were made that veterans at some of the centers were mistreated.
“We have a lack of oversight in this agency,” said McReynolds, who retired four years ago as administrator of the Lawton Veterans Center. “We need to put some oversight into place.”
Commissioners in late July accepted the retirement of Martha Spear, who had served the past several years as executive director of the Veterans Affairs Department and who had worked for the agency 47 years. Commissioners named McReynolds interim executive director; applications for the executive director post are being accepted through the middle of next month.
Gov. Mary Fallin last month asked for a state audit of the agency to review the efficiency and effectiveness of management, the efficiency and effectiveness of the oversight of the operations of the agency and the reasonableness of the Veterans Affairs Department.
Fallin in May replaced eight of the nine commissioners; she said she overhauled the commission to “actively and aggressively pursue the necessary changes to improve the quality of services at these facilities and to protect the safety and well-being of our veterans.”
An 85-year-old veteran was scalded to death in May in a whirlpool at Claremore Veterans Center. An internal investigation by the Veterans Affairs Department identified willful negligence and abuse by one nurse and neglect by three additional employees.
Another resident at the Claremore center claimed he was unnecessarily restrained and made to sit in his own waste for extended periods. He was removed from the center in October.