Sen. Frank Simpson (R-Ardmore) has filed several bills in the wake of an interim study that focused on the state's seven veteran centers and the Oklahoma Department of Veteran's Affairs. The bills are designed to address problems brought to light by veterans' families and facility employees.
"The goal of the interim study was to figure out what changes needed to be made to strengthen ODVA and ensure the state's veteran centers are providing the best possible care," Simpson said. "I believe my bills address the most important issues in helping us in that effort. I applaud the new War Veterans Commission on how proactive they've been in helping make ODVA a better agency. I also want to thank the entire ODVA staff and veteran center employees as well as the veterans and veterans family members who testified in our study. Their input will be instrumental as the legislation works to improve services provided to our state's heroes."
Simpson filed four bills regarding the veteran centers and the ODVA. The first, Senate Bill 235 clarifies the duties of the veteran centers, which are under the management and control of the War Veterans Commission but are operated by the ODVA. The bill ensures compliance with all federal and state statutes and rules that are applicable to the operation of long-term facilities. The commission will be tasked with appointing the veteran center administrators under the bill. The commission will also assure the rights of veteran residents including their rights to be free from neglect and abuse.
State Bill 629 would require to the state Department of Health to inspect the centers. During prior conversations with The Ardmoreite, Simpson said the Department of Health had been an investigating agency in years past. The department was removed in 2003 in legislation from the Oklahoma Nursing Home Care Act. Currently, the facilities are only inspected by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, which uses a private company to do the inspections.
"While listening to testimony throughout the interim study, it became obvious that many of the problems at the veteran center stems from a lack of state oversight," Simpson said. "With the passing of that 2003 legislation, the centers are removed from oversight by the Oklahoma Department of Health which means there was no longer any accountability to the citizens of Oklahoma and no oversight by the state. That has to change."
The bill will also give inspectors power to file a complaint with the appropriate district attorney cooperate in the prosecution of the alleged defender.
To help ensure that inspections are not the consummate "dog and pony show," inspections will be unannounced and anyone that provides information on a pending inspection ahead of time will be charged with a misdemeanor. During discussions in a War Veterans Commission meeting in Ardmore in 2012, commission members noted facilities had time to prepare for the inspections, which took away from the purpose of the inspection.
"What the point of having an inspection if everyone knows when it is and can make their facility perfect that week but then everything goes back downhill the rest of the time," Simpson said. "We need to ensure that these facilities are top notch and meeting all state and federal guidelines every day of the year. Our veterans deserve nothing less than the best because that's what they gave their country."
The two other pieces of legislation are State Bill 228 and State Bill 467. Under SB 228, the ODVA would establish education and training programs for positions critical to quality care of veterans residing in ODVA institutions. State Bill 467 would give the Governor the authority to choose the ODVA Director subject Senate confirmation. The interim study came on the heels of reported abuses at veterans' centers that included the death of Jay Minter, who was scalded to death in a malfunctioning whirlpool at the Claremore facility in May 2012. On Thursday, the Journal Record reported the Oklahoma Attorney General's office is conducting a criminal investigation into the state's veterans system that will include all the entire system and not just a single veteran center. Among the veterans centers in the state are facilities in Ardmore and Sulphur.
Simpson stated throughout the study that while problems have surfaced during the study, there are also commendable staff members in the system as well as quality centers.
"Many veterans' family members shared with us how much their loved ones enjoy being at the centers and how they want to spend their final days with their fellow veterans," Simpson said. "Despite the tragedies that have occurred, our state does have some of the best veterans centers in the nation. There are just some systematic problems that must be addressed immediately. Together, these measures will help improve ODVA by providing more accountability and oversight as well as improving training. But most importantly, they will rebuild trust between veterans and the state as well as among veteran center and ODVA staff, the War Veterans Commission and all the other involved governmental entities including the Governor and legislature."