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Quality of medical care sharply declines at Norman Veterans Center, spouses say

Norman Transcript - 9/16/2018

Sept. 16--When John Wilson, Ron McClure and Jim Burleson joined the American Armed Services as young men, they likely didn't think they'd have to advocate for quality health care decades later. Now these men, residents of the Norman Veterans Center, aren't receiving the level of care they were promised, according to their family members.

Now their wives, women like Pat Wilson, Patsy McClure and Jean Burleson, are fighting for them. They joined dozens of other military spouses and advocates at the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs central office in Oklahoma City Tuesday morning, representing veterans centers across the state. Some were angry about significant cuts in medical services and personnel and high staff turnover, while others were there to protest the ODVA's decision to move the Talahina Veterans Center.

Norman Veterans Center is one of the two veterans centers in Oklahoma that isn't subsidized by the state, according to ODVA executive director Doug Elliott. It used to have three on-site physicians, Burleson said. During the summer, that was changed to one off-site physician who visits the center once a week, on Mondays.

Additionally, lab work, X-rays and pharmacy services for the roughly 300 veterans in Norman, which had been done on-site, were outsourced, Burleson said.

"When [Jim] first went there, the service was wonderful. But in the last six months, it's just gone way down hill. The main doctor resigned, and the other two doctors were fired the day he left," she said. "There's not enough people to take care of all the residents."

The difference has been staggering, according to spouses of veterans in the Norman center, and they're fighting to convince the ODVA to return to former staffing levels.

"Ron can't speak, so I am his voice," Patsy said of her husband in the Norman Veterans Center. "I shouldn't have to be here. They need to get the respect they have due."

During a meeting of the ODVA commissioners Tuesday, Elliott said his department made an error when it emphasized the level of medical care it provided to its residents.

"For right now, we are a nursing home, and we need to get back to being a nursing home," he said.

But that's not the kind of care the veterans were promised, their family members said, and for several years, that's not the level of care they received. Marilyn Potts said her husband, James, a Vietnam War veteran, was in the Norman center for three months and received "excellent" care. That was before staffing was cut.

"All of our veterans deserve the excellence my husband got," she said. "I have friends who still have husbands at the Norman Veterans Center, and I can see what's going on. A lot of the staff who were there when my husband was there are no longer there. It breaks my heart that [the veterans] aren't given the quality of care they deserve."

The issues veterans' families have with the Norman Veterans Center are not unique. In August, State Auditor Gary Jones released a scathing report of the ODVA that found "a culture of fear and intimidation exists at ODVA. Employees across the state actively fear for their jobs and report experiencing dictatorial and aggressive leadership from the central office."

Elliott responded to the audit during Tuesday's meeting, saying it was politically motivated.

"I will contend this audit was politically motivated by none other than [state Rep.] Brian Renegar," he said. "This audit was basically misinformation and a smoke screen to prevent the relocation of Talihina."

The audit also expressed concern over the level of care veterans were receiving, echoing complaints from the family members protesting at the center on Tuesday.

"It is clear the historical level of in-house care at the centers is declining," the report read. "These changes contradict ODVA's mission of 'providing to the Veterans residing in the state of Oklahoma the highest quality support and care available anywhere in the Nation.'"

As for the wives of veterans in the Norman center, they don't intend to stop protesting until their husbands receive better care.

"Our guys fought for our country," said Pat Wilson, whose husband John is at the center. "They deserve better than a nursing home."


(c)2018 The Norman Transcript (Norman, Okla.)

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