Panel hears abuse allegations at Oklahoma veterans center
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A military veteran told Oklahoma lawmakers Tuesday that he was abused by a nurse during a medical procedure at the state’s Norman Veterans Center and that staff members tried to intimidate him.
Mike Simmons spoke to members of the House Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, which is looking into allegations of abuse at veterans centers statewide. The inquiry was requested by two Democratic lawmakers following reports in The Journal Record about alleged abuse at the centers.
Simmons, among those interviewed for the newspaper’s stories, said he submitted formal grievances at Norman but that they went unreported to the state Department of Human Services.
No one from the Norman center was at the meeting, and a call to center officials for comment late Tuesday afternoon went unreturned. But officials with some of the state’s six other centers said they have policies requiring that abuse allegations be reported to DHS.
Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Wesselhoft said he didn’t dispute Simmons’ allegation, but noted there was obvious tension between center officials and Simmons, who has been vocal about his complaints but still lives at the center. He was the only veteran who spoke during the meeting.
“I just don’t know how much we can learn from this one situation where there’s been such a turbulent relationship with this one resident,” said Wesselhoft, R-Moore.
Jerry Riley, a member of the Oklahoma War Veterans Commission that oversees the Department of Veterans Affairs, said before the meeting that the goal is to improve services and the treatment of all veterans.
“It’s not as bad as people think, we’re getting a lot of bad press,” said Riley, a Vietnam veteran who spent time in the Norman center’s rehabilitation program.
Simmons echoed some officials’ suggestions when he said the veterans centers’ annual inspections should be returned to direct DHS oversight, “with all surveys and official complaint investigations done by the DHS.” Currently, the responsibilities fall to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The House committee isn’t required to submit a formal report, but could submit recommendations when the Legislature reconvenes. A similar interim study is being conducted by a Senate committee.
Interim DVA Director John McReynolds said instances of intimidation by some employees of other staff has been documented and those employees were fired. But he declined to say whether Simmons’ allegations were among them, noting that he had been on the job for only a month.
The investigation was requested by Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, and Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs, following the newspaper stories.
Dorman, who voted to end DHS inspections and oversight of the veterans centers in 2003, said there are obvious areas needing improvement.
“No. 1, better oversight. And No. 2, more transparency. I think any review of these centers should be online for the public to see,” Dorman said. “It’s never going to be foolproof, but it’s our responsibility to make it the best possible situation we can.”
Simmons said he believes a part of the problem is not enough staff at Norman and other veterans centers. He said the nurse who mistreated him seemed overworked.
“Despite these problems, the Norman Veterans Center is my home and I want to continue living here,” Simmons said.