Following last fall’s interim study of the state’s seven veteran centers and the Oklahoma Department of Veteran’s Affairs (ODVA), Sen. Frank Simpson has filed several bills to address problems brought to light by veterans’ families and facility employees.
“The goal of our 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,” said Simpson, R-Springer. “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 all of the 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 legislature works to improve services provided to our state’s heroes.”
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 care facilities. Under the bill, the commission would be tasked with appointing the veteran center administrators. The legislation also verifies that the commission would assure the protection of the rights of all veteran center residents, including their right to be free of neglect and abuse.
SB 629 would require the state Department of Health to inspect the centers. The facilities are currently only inspected by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, which uses a private company to do the inspections. In 2003, legislation was passed that removed the veteran centers from the Oklahoma Nursing Home Care Act, which required state inspections.
“While listening to testimony throughout the interim study, it became obvious that many of the problems at the veteran centers stems from a lack of state oversight,” said Simpson. “With the passing of that 2003 legislation, the centers were 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.”
Under SB 629, if any state inspection finds proof that a facility is at fault for a crime, the state health commission will be authorized to file a complaint with the appropriate district attorney, and cooperate in the prosecution of the alleged offender.
Simpson, a retired Navy veteran, pointed out that during the interim study it was also found that veteran center administrators and employees often knew when federal inspections would take place and made necessary and temporary adjustments in order to pass. SB 629 will require that state inspections be unannounced and anyone who provides information about an inspection ahead of time will be charged with a misdemeanor. State health inspectors will be allowed to inspect all the nursing home premises including the administrative offices.
“What’s 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?” asked Simpson. “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.”
Another measure, SB 228, would authorize ODVA to establish education and training programs for positions critical to the quality care of veterans residing within ODVA institutions. During the interim study, veteran center employees noted that some of their education and training was inadequate and outdated.
Finally, SB 467 would give the Governor the authority to choose ODVA’s Director subject to the confirmation of the Senate.
“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. Despite the tragedies that have occurred, our state does have some of the best veteran centers in the nation. There are just some systematic problems that must be addressed immediately,” said Simpson. “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.”