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.”
Problems at the veterans centers in the past three years include the scalding of an 85-year-old veteran, Jay Minter, in a whirlpool last year at Claremore Veterans Center; he later died. The center was found to be understaffed and had problems such as disorganized mealtimes and dangerously crowded hallways.
Other problems include the Ardmore Veterans Center failing to protect five residents from sexual abuse by an employee in 2010 and keeping the employee at work despite a recommendation that he be fired. A 2010 report shows that a resident died at the Ardmore Veterans Center after not receiving proper treatment.
At the Norman center, multiple residents developed pressure sores. Relief devices were not provided, and staff could not identify residents at risk.
After Minter's death in May, a Senate panel headed by Sen. Frank Simpson heard from family members of other veterans who described abuse within the facilities. The panel also heard from veterans center employees who described a culture of intimidation that they said was intended to keep a facility's problems quiet.
Simpson, the author of SB 629, said he wanted to review the amendments further, but he had no immediate objection.
He said he liked the idea of having inspectors assigned solely to the veterans centers.
“You could develop an inspection team that was really trained and understood inspecting a veterans center, which in some aspects can be a little bit different in respect to a nursing home,” said Simpson, R-Ardmore. “They could also develop a track record of knowing what to look for at certain centers based upon their history with those centers.”
Simpson said the he hopes the additional cost of nearly $1 million to implement the measure doesn't alarm legislative leaders crafting the state's budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
“My question to them would be, what kind of a price tag do you put on the welfare of veterans in our veterans centers?” he said. “I think that's a good investment.”