Complaints up significantly; state audit sought

Tuesday, May 16th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Publicity about alleged improprieties by state Health Department inspectors has resulted in a big jump in the number of complaints against Oklahoma's 400 nursing homes, health officials say.

The increase also is attributed to an order to prominently display patient-abuse telephone hot lines.

"We're getting a lot more calls," Esther Houser, state long-term care ombudsman with the state Department of Human Services, said Monday.

The grievances voiced most often by relatives and friends of nursing home patients include unanswered calls for assistance, personal property losses and improperly administered medications.

Houser said complaints involve simple things -- the food is cold or a call-light goes unanswered -- and more serious fault finding that includes falls and other accidents, and physical abuse. DHS has 128 complaint categories.

About 90 percent of complaints made to DHS are successfully addressed without having to contact law enforcement agencies, Houser said.

Meanwhile, the state attorney general's office and the acting director of the Health Department have asked the state auditor to perform an investigative audit into certain Health Department operations.

"We have concluded that an investigative audit for criminal and other types of misconduct should be conducted," Tom Gruber, first assistant attorney general, said in a May 10 letter to Auditor and Inspector Clifton Scott.

"Please direct your efforts to the Long-Term Care Division of the Oklahoma State Department of Health in the areas of processes and documentation regarding the inspection or survey and certification of nursing homes."

Scott said he would like to restore integrity to the process by which audit findings are reported. About 10 years ago, he said, the Board of Health told external auditors not to report to them any more.

"They said they didn't want audits brought to their attention and to just take them to management," Scott said.

Several years later, the board told the department's internal auditors the same thing, he said.

"Board members foolishly cut themselves off from anything," Scott said.

Members of management are unlikely to inform the board of audit findings that are critical of management practices, he said. Auditors also can be reluctant to return audit findings critical of management when they know their findings will be filtered through the very administrators who may be subjects of critical findings.