The Oklahoma Veterans Affairs Department, which has come under scrutiny amid allegations of mistreatment of residents at some of its seven veterans centers, is seeking more than $250,000 in additional money next year to increase salaries of five administrators.
The salary request is part of the agency's central office reorganization, which includes boosting the salary of the director, John McReynolds, who was hired last month, from $99,750 to $140,000.
The increase in salaries, presented Monday to the House of Representatives budget subcommittee on public health and social services, total $254,786. Part of the plan calls for an assistant director to oversee the veterans center, with the salary increasing from $64,750 to $100,000, and an assistant director for claims and benefits, with the salary increasing from $21,158 to $100,000.
The deputy director's salary would increase from $95,000 to $120,000 and a public information officer's salary would increase from $36,618 to $62,500.
Members of the budget panel listened to a presentation by McReynolds, but ran out of time before they could get to the agency's budget request.
The increased salaries are part of an additional $352,280 increase sought by the Veterans Affairs Department, which would up the agency's state appropriation to $36 million. It received $35.7 million from the Legislature last year, an increase of $1 million; the increase went to pay for staffing assistance at the veterans centers.
McReynolds said the agency also is hiring seven field service representatives who will help residents with their federal benefits at each of the seven centers. Those positions will cost $354,636, but those salaries would be paid with federal funds. About $70 million, or 52 percent of the funds the agency receives this fiscal year, comes from the federal government.
“We anticipate that to continue,” McReynolds said.
The agency's budget calls for an increase of about $1.6 million in federal funds for the upcoming fiscal year.
The restructuring plan also calls for putting four regional directors in place. Each would be paid an annual salary of $50,000; the agency is seeking $71,181 in new state dollars to pay for the increase.
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.
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. Commissioners named McReynolds, who, who retired five years ago as administrator of the Lawton Veterans Center, as interim executive director. Gov. Mary Fallin last year replaced eight of the nine commissioners on the board that oversees the agency.
An 85-year-old veteran was scalded to death in May in a whirlpool at Claremore Veterans Center. An internal investigation identified willful negligence and abuse by one nurse and neglect by three additional employees.
The state Veterans Affairs Department's total budget for this fiscal year, which ends June 30, totals $132 million. State appropriations make up 27 percent of its budget and 21 percent, or $27 million, comes from its revolving fund, which comes from monthly maintenance charges paid by residents at the veterans centers.
McReynolds said about 52 percent of the nearly 1,400 veterans in the state's veterans centers are receiving money from nonmilitary service-connected pensions. 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; the state Veterans Affairs Department receives about $4.2 million a month to care for veterans.
An inquiry into each of the veterans centers last year showed that claims are not being properly developed. The only claims being filed in the centers are nonmilitary service-connected pensions. As a result, veterans in the centers are not receiving the federal benefits they are entitled to because of the underdeveloped claims, agency officials said earlier.