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Oklahoma VA Centers Working To Improve Services

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Oklahomans speak with reverence about military service and tend to put veterans in a special class of people, deserving of special attention and honor. But that sort of talk doesn't always seem to match up with reality, especially when it comes to providing our veterans with top-notch health care.

Two recent cases underscore this contention:

-- In October, 2016, 73-year-old Vietnam Veteran Owen Peterson died of sepsis at the Talihina Veterans Center after maggots were found in his body.

-- In January, 2017, 70-year-old Leonard Smith, also a Vietnam veteran and also was living at the Talihina Veterans Center, died by choking on a plastic bag in his throat.

"These things could happen anywhere," said Dr. Treva Graham.

Dr. Graham is medical director at the Clinton Veterans Center, one of Oklahoma's seven state-run veterans centers. The others are in Talihina, Norman, Ardmore, Claremore, Sulphur and Lawton. The facilities provide intermediate to skilled nursing to approximately 1,400 veterans, many of them battling very serious illness.

"These people are very often plagued with Alzheimer's," explained Dr. Graham, "and they don't always remember that they can't walk or that they know what to do with things that come into their hands -- they might try to eat something that's not really appropriate for them to eat."

Dr. Graham says, despite a few incidents that get bad press, the care at the state's veterans centers is overwhelmingly good. She says the centers have full-time RN's, pharmacists, physical therapists, social workers, as well as, service officers to help the veterans with their benefits.

"We feel like we need to treat them just like we would if they were our family," Dr. Graham said. "We want them to be as well cared for, as if they were our own father, our own brother, our own uncle."

Of course, far more veterans get their care through the Veterans Health Administration, part of the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. 61,000 veterans walked through the doors of the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center last year.

Russell Wolfe is one of them.

"I've used VA centers all over," said Wolfe, in a recent interview.

Wolfe just earned a degree at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond last year, but it's been 21 years since he was paralyzed in the line of duty. He's gotten VA care all over the country and says he's seen the good, the bad and the ugly.

"Every facility is different," Wolfe stated. "I try to keep an open mind about that, specifically."

He says his experiences in Oklahoma have been positive, with the exception of a recent attempt to get VA approval to adapt his car for his wheelchair.

"Well, they disapproved my adaptation to my vehicle," Wolfe recalled, "and I'm like, 'I've got the paperwork right here."

But, Wolfe says, they insisted the work had not been approved.

"And I'm like, 'I have the paperwork," Wolfe continued, "they're like, 'Well, it's not in our system.'"

These sorts of stories are not a complete to surprise to Wade Vlosich.

"I think we have improved, but we're not where we need to be," said Vlosich, Director of the Oklahoma City VA Health Care System.

Vlosich took the reins in Oklahoma City just over a year ago. He says there were a variety of problems, including a lack of good nurses, doctors who underperformed, and poor communication.

"There was just no leadership," Vlosich admitted, "and when you had leadership here, there was just no continuity and no focus."

Vlosich says he set out quickly to change that, through personnel moves, aggressive recruiting, and increased outreach to veterans. He made it a priority, he says, to expand mental health services for veterans through telemedicine, to increase outpatient services by pushing for greater productivity, and to crack down on fraud.

On the VA's five-star rating scale, Oklahoma City jumped from a one to a three.

"Our goal is to be a five-star facility and be the leader in the nation," Vlosich stated, "and I think we can get there."

In addition to the hospital in Oklahoma City, VHA operates more than a dozen outpatient clinics across the state; there is also another medical center in Muskogee.

A recent Inspector General investigation into the Muskogee facility, which had been requested by U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe, (R) Oklahoma, found several deficiencies -- in leadership stability, staffing, and timeliness, among other things.

Like the Oklahoma City medical center, Muskogee also currently has a rating of three stars.

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