Okla. Veterans Commission keeps executive director, endorses status quo after audit

By JUSTIN WINGERTER | The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City | Published: September 12, 2018

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. (Tribune News Service) — Faced with a highly critical state audit, low morale and calls for it to fire top officials at the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs, the agency's governing board stayed the course Tuesday, keeping its executive director and moving ahead with relocation of the Talihina Veterans Center.

In a marathon meeting that stretched to seven hours, the Veterans Commission heard from Executive Director Doug Elliott, compliance director Tina Williams and other top agency officials, who defended the job they've done while acknowledging their decisions have been controversial.

“You guys hired me to move this thing along and I think I'm doing it,” Elliott told commissioners, after acknowledging that changes at the agency “have been fast and furious” as of late.

The nine-man commission responded with nodded heads and offered words of encouragement for the embattled agency head. They hailed Elliott as a proactive reformer unafraid of controversy, shrugging off — and sometimes laughing off — a state audit that concluded Veterans Affairs' leadership is toxic.

"What we charged Mr. Elliott with is cleaning up ODVA, making it a business ... some people are not going to like this change,” said Commissioner Lloyd Smithson.

The conversation grew contentious when Elliott openly criticized the tactics of state auditors, who emphasized anonymous surveys and interviews in compiling their Aug. 1 report. Auditor Gary Jones was in the back of the room during Elliott's remarks and was clearly frustrated by criticisms of his agency.

When Elliott said, “No one was interviewed from central office,” Jones stood up.

“Let me correct that. That's not true,” the auditor told commissioners.

Elliott, raising his voice, asked, “Did you talk to me, Mr. Jones?”

Jones reiterated that his staff interviewed central office employees, in addition to past and present employees at the state's seven veterans centers. “There actually was no bias” in the audit, he said.

In the hour before the meeting began, about 40 people gathered peacefully outside Veterans Affairs headquarters, holding signs and making clear their opposition to the agency's current leadership. Most made the trip from cities that are home to veterans centers: Norman, Lawton and Talihina.

“I'm very frustrated,” said Betty Rogers, whose husband, Tom, served in the Korean War and is now at the Norman Veterans Center. “We don't have the on-site X-rays now. We need those services again.”

Mary Jane Argo, whose father-in-law is also at the Norman Veterans Center, says staff members there are friendly and helpful but she has disagreements with the decisions emerging from central office.

“They've taken away a lot of things. There isn't as much help now,” she said.

The outsourcing of X-ray and lab work, medical services once offered in-house at the veterans centers, was a consistent point of contention during the meeting. Elliott praised the outsourcing efforts, telling commissioners they have saved taxpayers millions of dollars each year.

“Having a lab at certain places I think would be beneficial,” said Commissioner Gary Secor, citing the Lawton-Fort Sill Veterans Center specifically, where the outsourcing of lab work has slowed the rate at which veterans see results and created a backlog at Lawton medical facilities.

“In a business sense, it's just not fiscally responsible to do that,” responded Smithson.

“But the business we're in,” Secor said, “is taking care of veterans.”

Secor consistently pushed back against agency leaders. When compliance director Tina Williams described a policy change — medical directors no longer make sick calls, only nurses do — she said nurses became too accustomed to assigning doctors rather than handling matters themselves. Secor disagreed.

“Our nurses are spoiled,” Williams said. “I don't know how else to put it. Our nurses forgot how to be nurses.”

“The nurses are swamped,” Secor told her, drawing grumbles of agreement from the small crowd of spectators. “The nurses are backed up.”

Several commissioners asked about the impact of contracting part-time doctors rather than hiring doctors to work full time in the veterans centers. Commissioner Gaylord Thomas said he's concerned Veterans Affairs centers are turning into nursing homes.

“We don't want to go there. That's the concern you hear from people out there, that we're going backwards,” he said.

Elliott said contracting for doctors is “a stopgap” and that his agency would prefer doctors be at centers full time, but the state's pay scale isn't attractive enough. Taxpayers “would absolutely become unglued” if doctors were paid $300,000, he said.

Elliott said lab work previously cost Veterans Affairs $2.3 million per year but now, under privatization, costs $480,000 per year. He called privatization “a very emotional issue” and said he understands opposition from some veterans and their families.

“But when I look at the overall deaths, I do not see an increase in deaths,” Elliott said.

Protesters before the meeting held signs that stated, “The audit says the truth” and “ODVA is a dictatorship” and “Make ODVA Great Again: Fire Elliott and Williams,” a reference to the executive director and compliance director. Those who had driven in the early morning from Talihina wore white T-shirts with “Save the Talihina Veterans Center” and a photo of the center on them.

The center is slated to close after Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill this year allowing for closure. The Veterans Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to continue ahead with the relocation of that center.

“While this relocation is wildly unpopular, it's the right thing to do,” Elliott told commissioners. Even if relocating the center cost him his job Tuesday, “it's the right thing to do,” the director said.

John Duggan, who worked at the Veterans Affairs central office for 22 years before retiring last November, was one of those protesting outside that central office Tuesday morning. He served in the Vietnam War, was sickened by Agent Orange and expects to be at a veterans center in the next decade.

“There's been some bumps in the road,” he said of the agency's history, “but this is the low point.”

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