A legislative committee unanimously approved changing a bill Monday that now would require the state Health Department to make at least one unannounced annual inspection as well as monthly visits to each of Oklahoma's seven veterans centers.
Members of the House of Representatives Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, concerned about reports of neglect and abuse at the centers, also passed an amendment requiring that Health Department inspectors be assigned exclusively to the veterans centers.
“The two amendments put a tooth into the bill and do what the people are demanding which is accountability and protection for the vets,” said committee member Rep. Eric Proctor, D-Tulsa. “It's definitely many steps in the right direction.”
The Health Department estimates it would have to hire nine additional inspectors to survey the veterans centers. The additional cost for salaries and benefits, travel and motor pool expenses and office space is projected at $819,200.
A Health Department official balked at having the inspectors dedicated specifically to the veterans centers, but lawmakers insisted.
“As legislators we should not abdicate our responsibility to a bureaucrat,” Proctor said. “Part of the committee process is to make amendments to ensure that there are teeth moving to the floor.”
Committee members voted 10-0 to pass Senate Bill 629. It now goes to the House Calendar Committee, which will determine whether it advances to the House.
Until 2003, the Health Department inspected the state veterans centers, home to nearly 1,400 veterans. Since then, the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department regularly inspects each center, and the agency has a survey team that evaluates the centers and helps prepare them for the federal inspections.
Al Patrick, an Army veteran of 22 years who watched as lawmakers discussed changes to the bill for more than an hour, applauded the measure.
“There have actually been no inspections,” said Patrick, of Norman, after the meeting. “Also, complaint follow-up is going to be a bigger thing. Right now the complaints are handled by the administrators of the centers and they said they basically found no reason for the complaints.”