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Health Department search warrants issued

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- The state Department of Health and its regulation of nursing homes is under criminal investigation, officials announced Tuesday.

Statements issued by Gov. Frank Keating and Attorney General Drew Edmondson said search warrants had been issued for offices at
the state agency as well as some businesses and residences in the Oklahoma City area.

Thirteen search warrants in six locations had been issued. The investigation involved state and federal law enforcement officers.

A source close to the investigation said it involved "possible criminal kickbacks."

A spokesman for Keating said "there is no reason to believe that Health Commissioner Jerry Nida is a target of this investigation."

Keating told The Associated Press as he left Capitol that Nida, who is on medical leave, was not served with a search warrant.

But the governor said a search warrant did target Brent Van Meter, who had been serving as interim commissioner in Nida's absence.

Efforts by The AP to reach Van Meter by phone were not immediately successful.

In a statement, Keating said he had named Jerry Regier, cabinet secretary of Health and Human Services, to assume the role of
interim acting commissioner of health. He said he directed Regier to immediately suspend, with pay, those served with warrants pending further inquiry.

He said Dr. Jay Gregory, president of the state Board of Health, had agreed to schedule an emergency meeting Wednesday.

"It is important to note that this investigation is ongoing and being served with a search warrant does not imply guilt, but with the care of nursing home patients and millions of dollars in federal funds at risk, I feel these actions are necessary and appropriate," Keating said.

Edmondson said his Medicaid Fraud Control Unit has jurisdiction over allegations of financial fraud as well as patient abuse or
neglect in nursing homes.

"Federal law also applies to some or all of these areas," he said. "All of these issues presented themselves in a lengthy
investigation involving our office and federal agencies."

He said the federal search warrants support a joint investigation of the fraud unit, the FBI and other federal agencies into "possible criminal activity which may have impacted the
health care of patients in several Oklahoma nursing homes."

"The search warrants were designed to obtain records from certain Health Department employees and private citizens involved
in the nursing home industry in Oklahoma.

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