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Health Department Management Interference May Be Cause Of Problems

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Inspections of Oklahoma nursing homes appear to have been flawed by interference from state Health Department management, not the inspectors themselves, the acting head of the agency said Wednesday. An investigation into the department's handling of nursing homes has found "considerable management irregularities," said Jerry Regier, acting director of the state Health Department. "From what I can tell, most of the surveyors were doing a good job, are doing a job, reporting properly," Regier said. "But it was higher management that would then either change those reports inappropriately, would warn homes inappropriately or would call off surveyors, sometimes in the middle of a survey." A 1999 report by the federal General Accounting Office found that Oklahoma reported an abnormally low number of serious deficiencies in nursing homes. Oklahoma rated 8% to 13% of all deficiencies as serious, well below the national average of 25%, according to a state Board of Health committee report, which will be discussed at the board's meeting Thursday. "I think what that tells me is that at some point in the process, our deficiency reports are being lowered or watered down in some manner," Regier said. Regier, Gov. Frank Keating's cabinet secretary of Health and Human Services, took over the job as acting director following the May 2 arrest of Deputy Health Commissioner Brent VanMeter. VanMeter, whom Regier fired, was indicted on a federal bribery charge related to nursing home oversight. An investigation has found "management irregularities" in the Health Department that included personnel from one division reporting to managers in another division, leading to what Regier called "management chaos." He said he could not say whether such changes had the appearance of criminal intent but "they certainly were power reasons." "I think it would have to have been intentional because Mr. VanMeter and others were the ones who set it up," Regier said. Health Department staff report that the problems in nursing home oversight have been going on "for certainly a decade," he said. "I think there was a sense among the staff that reform or change just would never happen in the department because it had become such an entrenched bureaucracy," Regier said. "But I think the majority of staff right now are very encouraged that potentially this time we may see some real changes."
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