M. Scott Carter reports on politics, legislation and other issues from the State Capitol.
The Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs plans to expand mental health services, improve its seven long-term care facilities and increase educational and employment opportunities for veterans, the state’s new Secretary for Veterans Affairs said this week.
Ret. General Myles Deering said Thursday he would identify “as many veterans as possible” in Oklahoma and develop new programs to provide better health care, support and employment opportunities.
“I want to leave this agency in better shape than I found it,” Deering said.
Deering – named state VA Secretary four weeks ago by Gov. Mary Fallin – also serves as executive director of the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs.
Deering is the department’s third executive director since May 2012. In February, he replaced former chief John McReynolds, who served about two years at the post. McReynolds became chief after long-time executive director Martha Spear was forced to retire in 2012. Spear was forced out after reports surfaced that detailed cases of rape, abuse, neglect and premature deaths at several state veterans centers.
Deering acknowledged the agency’s rocky history. He said any abuse of veterans wouldn’t be tolerated.
“My intent is to right the ship,” he said. “If the agency has been in a bad situation, (I want) to do my best to correct everything I can.”
Deering said the department needs to expand its outreach to veterans and partner with other groups and agencies to expand services and provide resources for veterans struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues.
State officials estimate there are more than 300,000 veterans living in the state.
However, some lawmakers say they remained concerned about state’s veterans system and the services it provides.
“I still think we need more oversight,” Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Oklahoma City, said. “Things have improved but I’m not sure they are improving at the speed most Oklahomans want.”
Deering said making the agency more transparent would help address some of those fears. He said he would push for more attention and better management at the state’s seven long-term care centers. He said the agency has a zero tolerance level for abuse.
“We have to be acutely aware of our responsibilities to each and every one of those patients,” he said. “We have to take affirmative action when something like this occurs, immediately. We cannot tolerate that type of behavior.”
Deering said he has visited four veterans’ centers since becoming secretary, but he’s still gathering information about staffing levels, management and the problems faced by each center.
Deering said it’s too early to determine if major changes need to be made within the agency, but added that the system will have balance its resources against the services it provides.
“If you can’t meet the minimum, essential needs of protecting these patients, then you have to look for additional resources,” he said. “If those resources aren’t available you may have to reduce.”
And with the state facing a budget gap of $611.3 million, Deering said it’s unlikely that his agency would receive additional revenue for the next fiscal year.
In January, Fallin proposed a flat appropriation for the agency so it “could maintain core services.” For the 2015 fiscal year, the department received $34.4 million.
Since then lawmakers have called agency officials back to the state Capitol for a second round of budget hearings and warned agency heads to expect budget reductions.