Oklahoma Senate panel looks at state's Department of Veterans Affairs
OKLAHOMA CITY — A Senate panel on Tuesday began looking into the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs following high-profile reports of neglect, abuse and death.
The Senate Committee on Veterans and Military Affairs began the interim study at the request of Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Ardmore, its co-chairman and a Navy veteran.
Simpson said the study will evaluate the structure and operation of the central office, the duties and responsibilities of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and the War Veterans Commission, which hires and fires the agency's executive director, staffing, pay and training at the state's seven veterans centers.
"Today is a starting point," Simpson said.
Gov. Mary Fallin recently appointed new members to the War Veterans Commission following reports of abuse and neglect first published in The Journal Record.
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Rita Aragon, secretary for Veterans Affairs, said her job is to serve as a liaison between the governor and the agency and commission. She has no staff and no budget, she said.
But under past commissioners and administration, she was closed out from participating.
She was not allowed to participate in executive sessions of the commission, where sensitive issues were discussed, she said.
That created a barrier between the agency and the Governor's Office, she said. As a result, she was not able to inform the governor, who appoints its members, about what needed to be fixed, she said.
"They didn't feel they owed the governor any information or feedback," Aragon said.
The state has 350,000 veterans, or about 10 percent of the state's population, she said.
About 1,482 of the state's veterans are at the seven centers, she said. The state receives an "enormous" amount of money, but the focus has been on the veterans in the homes, she said.
She said the agency needs to redefine who receives services.
She said it was sad to know that the state's most vulnerable were having difficulties because they had no voice.
She said the legacy the state will have to deal with in light of the reports of neglect and abuse is second-guessing the quality of care provided.
She received calls from family members who said their loved one was not at death's door, but something happened.
If veterans die unnecessarily, it is a hard criticism on all involved, she said.
War Veterans Commission Chairman Richard Putnam, who has been on the job about two months, said the new commission has no problem with input from the Governor's Office.
Sen. Steve Russell, R-Oklahoma City, is a retired Army lieutenant colonel and is chairman of the panel.
"We can't really pin the tail on who is responsible," Russell said.
Putnam said he has no ill will for staff or former commissioners, but he believes inadequate oversight resulted in problems.
He said one of the first tasks is to replace leadership at the agency and re-establish relationships.
"We lost your trust and we are trying to get it back," Putnam said.