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“The toxic environment increases risk,” Audit of Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs released

OKLAHOMA CITY – An Oklahoma official is speaking out regarding the results of an audit for the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs.

State Auditor Gary Jones says the Office of the Attorney General requested an audit of the agency after receiving several complaints from lawmakers and former Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs employees.

“This is the third audit released on the ODVA in the last five years and is probably the most troubling,” said State Auditor Gary Jones. “The issue, really, comes down to management style, common decency, respect for its mission, and the potential impact on patient care.”

The report states that there are issues where policy and procedural changes are made but employees don’t know the reason behind the changes or what is expected of them.

“We’re talking about people here,” Jones said. “People who served our country that now need long-term care and the people who provide that care which was so richly earned and deserved. Unfortunately, ODVA personnel are working in a fog of mistrust resulting from poor communication by the agency’s executive director and the apparent constant threat of termination.”

The audit alleges that employees have been abruptly terminated, and others fear that they might be next.

“The negative impact is going to impact the quality of care, if it hasn’t already,” Jones said. “The Commission needs to embrace its statutory authority and fiduciary responsibility in setting the tone for management, communication, personnel services, and other employment issues which place the agency – and more importantly – its most valued patients at risk. By all accounts, the workplace atmosphere that exists from one center to another is such that only those people who are the most dedicated to caring for our veterans would even want to work there.”

The report states the following:

“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. They expressed that management makes changes without explanation, and ridicules those who offer input or disagree. Morale is reportedly at an all-time low, with staff left feeling unsupported, without adequate resources, and reminded regularly that they are replaceable.

A silo effect appears to be at work at the agency, with central management and varying divisions ‘cut off’ from one another. Center management feels cut off from the Oklahoma Veterans Commission; centers feel cut off from one another. A lack of clear directives at both the central and veterans center levels obstructs the flow of information from the top down, hindering project implementation and aggravating employee concerns.

Staff are frustrated by perceived central office favoritism and bias in staffing and incentives. While the central office expands, center staff believe funds are being removed from veteran care for that purpose. Management argues that cuts to staffing and services are due to a decline in state appropriations, while staff are aware that state funds account for only a minor portion of the agency’s overall revenues, which did not in fact decline over the audit period.

Overall, the toxic environment increases risk and lowers morale throughout the agency, no doubt impacting the quality of care and services provided. Responses to our employee surveys and interview questions echoed one of the initial questions driving this audit with concerns that the level of care provided to residents of the state veterans centers is declining. In recent years, laboratory services at the centers have been outsourced, with reports that other services are soon to follow, as staffing shortages and turnover frustrate center employees. Access to medical providers is reportedly being restricted, and specialty diets have been limited while center menus were standardized. It is clear the historical level of in-house care at the centers is declining.

However, as the veterans centers are licensed as long-term care facilities, these changes do not appear to violate applicable regulations. Rather, they illustrate staff’s concerns that the centers are being turned into nursing homes, that management is occupied with raising profits while meeting minimal regulatory requirements, and that central office does not share their respect and admiration for the residents in their care. These changes also 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.”

The report recommends increasing broad oversight, improve communication, conduct certain independent reviews prior to pushing out new policies and have an independent review of financial controls and other operational areas that have undergone recent changes.

The Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs released the following statement Wednesday saying:

“We are presently reviewing the State Auditor’s report. Where matters of significance have been raised, we look forward to taking the appropriate corrective action.”