Commissioner says board may make changes

Monday, May 22nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- State Health Commissioner Dr. J.R. Nida knows his days may be numbered as head of an agency reeling from a corruption scandal involving nursing homes.

Nida is on sick leave, recovering from surgery to remove a diseased kidney. He is expected back June 1, the same day the state Health Board meets in Oklahoma City.

Dr, Jay A. Gregory of Muskogee, health board president, said the board will discuss the present and future leadership of the department then.

"Does the state Board of Health want to continue with old leadership or new leadership?" asks Jerry Regier, who was named Health Department acting director May 3 as a federal and state investigation of the nursing home inspection unit unfolded.

Regier is in the middle of a swift, thorough overall of thed epartment's nursing home inspection unit. He doesn't want the job full-time. "I came on as a firefighter to put out the fires. Doinso will give us the ability to right the ship," he said.

"I want to be assured that the Department of Health is put in the hands of someone who will bring the agency back to accountability and integrity and, in doing so, will strive to improve the health and well-being of all Oklahomans," Regier said.

"There's a possibility they'll make a change," Nida said. "I'll roll with the punches."

Gordon Deckert of Oklahoma City, a board member, said any new permanent commissioner should be chosen from outside Oklahoma.

Nida told The Daily Oklahoman one of his first goals when he returns to work June 1 will be to hire someone to run the long-term care unit that handles the nursing home inspections.

He said the replacement for former Deputy Health Commissioner Brent VanMeter likely will be someone from out of state.

"The public needs to be assured that we're not just moving people around within the department to cover something up," Nida said. "We'll hire a qualified person with an impeccable background."

Nida said he had no clue that VanMeter might have been involved in alleged briberies and kickbacks involving a nursing home owner.

VanMeter and nursing home owner James Smart were named last week in a federal grand jury indictment that accuses them of bribery in connection with a state program that receives funds from federalhealth care benefit programs.

Regier stepped in a day after VanMeter was arrested. Gov. Frank Keating recommended his secretary of health and human services b appointed to oversee the agency temporarily.

Regier said he found more serious management problems than he anticipated. "The department is entrenched with bad management and a lack of direction," he said. "That means the department is not delivering the services it is mandated to do. Problems within the department have safety, health, integrity and financial implications."

Regier said the average health department worker is committed but doesn't have leadership. "There's no accountability related to supervision," he said.

"There are staff jobs, but people don't come to work. There are jobs where people don't do anything. A person in one department reports to someone in another department."

The federal and state investigation continues. U.S. Attorney Dan Webber expects more indictments. Regier said he expects additional indictments of Health Department personnel.