Employees at Oklahoma nursing homes for veterans work long shifts, with little pay and little guidance, contributing to serious problems with patient care, according to a state audit released Wednesday.
Recent problems include the scalding death of a veteran housed at a long-term care center in Claremore.
The audit said the Veterans Affairs Department shows a general lack of support for employees and said the department's oversight board hasn't performed well.
“These deficiencies in essential services hardly seem a suitable way to repay those who have sacrificed to protect the rest of us and will likely spend the remainder of their lives in such conditions,” said Gary Jones, state auditor & inspector.
Gov. Mary Fallin requested the department's operations and finances be audited in August amid reports of abuse and mistreatment at some of its seven nursing centers.
On Wednesday, she called the report's findings “unacceptable” and “disturbing” and asked state lawmakers to give the governor's office full authority to appoint the department's executive director, currently chosen by the War Veterans Commission.
Fallin replaced all but one member of the commission in May 2012, and the commission hired John McReynolds to replace outgoing executive director Martha Spear in December.
Fallin also called on the commission to reflect more accurately the makeup of the state's veterans.
“It is my hope these issues can be addressed in the future as part of a rethinking of how the ODVA does business and delivers its services to veterans,” Fallin said.
The Claremore death last May, plus allegations of sexual abuse against an employee at the Ardmore center later in the year, were among several incidents discussed in a recent legislative study of the department, said Sen. Frank Simpson.
The Ardmore Republican said Wednesday's audit report reinforced many of his concerns.
“The employee who has the most impact on the quality of care is the lowest paid person in the center,” Simpson said. “We've got to look at a program where we get the pay more comparable to the expectations and responsibilities of the job.”
The department's budget was reduced by almost 10 percent from 2010 to 2012, and some nursing center employees are paid 41 percent less than their counterparts in other states, according to the report.
The report also cites inconsistent training, a disregard for staff input by administrators and a decentralized structure as fundamental problems in the department's operations.
Commission members “neither appear fully aware of their own governance responsibility or conscious of their own deficiencies,” according to the report.
The problems create an environment at the nursing centers that could lead to simple errors, like forgetting to change bedsheets, to more serious issues like failing to properly investigate abuse complaints, according to the report.