Changes are coming to the state Veterans Affairs Department, which has come under scrutiny for allegations of mistreatment of residents at some of its seven veterans centers, the chairman of the board overseeing the agency said Tuesday.
A reconfigured War Veterans Commission — eight of the nine members were appointed in May by Gov. Mary Fallin — accepted the retirement of Martha Spear, who had served the past several years as executive director of the Veterans Affairs Department. Fallin 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.”
“I’m not ignoring the concerns that we have had,” said Rich Putnam, chairman of the War Veterans Commission. “There are things going on in the centers that need to be addressed. I think probably claims and benefits (division) is running a bit more smoothly at this point than are the veterans centers overall.”
Putnam, of Ada, also announced at Tuesday’s special meeting that the directors of the Claremore and Sulphur veterans centers are leaving. He said both are retirements, and will be taken up by the commission at a meeting this month. Other departures may be forthcoming, he said.
“I’m just guessing we’ll have more, then,” he told commissioners.
After the meeting, Putnam said he isn’t surprised by the personnel moves, especially if agency employees are eligible for retirement. The revamped commission, which is the controlling board of the Veterans Affairs Department, plans to bring about change.
“We collectively are a new sheriff,” he said. “And people are understandably kind of concerned about the new sheriff, especially when there is open criticism of the way that things have been run in the past.”
Spear, who began working for the agency in 1965, will retire effective Nov. 1 and is taking leave through then to take care of her ailing husband, Putnam said. Spear, whose annual salary is $99,750, was not at Tuesday’s meeting.
Commissioners, even though they had worked with Spear a brief time, complimented her for her abilities.
“She has done a superb job and I think we ought to recognize her for that,” said Commissioner Robert Keister, of Granite.
“I hope we can find someone who can measure up to her,” said Commissioner Dr. Curtis “Doc” Bohlman, of Woodward.
Putnam said he wanted the agency’s actions to be more open, and he planned to discuss naming an interim executive director during Tuesday’s meeting.
But other commissioners said they would prefer talking about the matter behind closed doors. They will take up hiring an interim executive director during their Aug. 17 meeting at the Ardmore Veterans Center.
Putnam said those wanting to apply for the interim post should contact him or the Veterans Affairs Department by Aug. 10.
He said the agency plans to conduct a national search for a new executive director. Putnam said he didn’t know how long the search would take; the successful applicant must be a veteran.
“Nonveterans have become in charge of the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs and we’re going to change that,” Putnam said. “The new director of the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs will be a veteran and we are going to see to it that veterans are pushed into positions of responsibility throughout the agency. ... This is the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans need to run it.”
Rita Aragon, a retired Air Force major general who serves as secretary of veteran affairs on Fallin’s Cabinet, questioned who would lead the agency for the three weeks until an interim executive director is named. The post of deputy director has been vacant for some time.
Putnam said he, Aragon and Roy Griffith, administrator of the Talihina Veterans Center whom Spear earlier had named acting deputy director, will work together to take care of operations.
Griffith said after the meeting he is not applying for either the interim executive director or executive director post.
The state Senate plans to hold an interim study this year on whether veterans are receiving quality care at the centers and to investigate reports of abuse. The panel also will evaluate the management structure of the Veterans Affairs Department.
Sen. Frank Simpson, vice chairman of the Senate Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, asked for the study. Simpson, R-Ardmore, was at Tuesday’s meeting.
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 other employees.
Another resident at the Claremore center claimed he was unnecessarily restrained physically and chemically and made to sit in his own waste for extended periods. He was involuntarily discharged and removed from the center in October.