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Investigators: Culture of Corruption in Some Nursing Homes

Neglect may be a fact of life for some of the more than 1.5 million older Americans who live in nursing homes. CBS News Correspondent Vince Gonzales has the details in an Eye on America investigation.

According to state inspection reports, Oklahoma nursing homes were ranked among the best in the nation. The truth, however, surfaced--that the state led the nation not in quality care, but in corruption. FBI wiretaps caught the state's top nursing home official, Brent VanMeter, demanding kickbacks after doctoring paperwork for a nursing home owner.

Bribery convictions for VanMeter are vindication for those who advocate for the elderly. They have been warning federal officials about the corruption in Oklahoma's nursing homes for years. To them, this scandal is about much more than money.

"It's obscene to me and it's absolutely without question true that people died in facilities because of that corruption," says Esther Houser, a long-term-care ombudsman. "The residents were allowed to live in inhumane conditions in certain homes and that was a result of Mr. VanMeter's philosophy towards the system."

Investigators found VanMeter created a culture of corruption: Homes were tipped off before inspections, inspectors' reports were altered, and serious violations were simply ignored.

"I think my grandmother was probably one of those people who died because of the corruption," says Wes Bledsoe, whose grandmother, Eunice Allen, died a week after the corruption scandal broke. Inspectors had repeatedly cited the nursing home, Southern Oaks Manor, for harming patients, but little was ever done.

"I think one of the toughest things was knowing that my grandmother was suffering," she says, contemplating why her grandmother died of gangrene in the nursing home.

Allen's family was stunned to find out that the doctor who signed off on most of her care was not a physician. Dr. Susan Byrd is, in fact, a nurse with a doctorate in education.

The medical examiner ruled that Allen's death was of "natural causes" but says "neglect" may have played a role. State investigators "substantiated medical neglect" and "substandard care" and referred the case to the local district attorney for possible criminal charges.

Bledsoe is suing the home's owner, Denver McCormick, who is the former head of the Oklahoma Nursing Home Association.

When CBS News tried to ask McCormick about the charges, he said he couldn't comment on the matter.

Lawyers for McCormick and Byrd denied all allegation, and said in a statement, released a week after Allen's death that the home "will continue to provide excellent care long after this story is forgotten."

Bledsoe, however, says he will never forget. He's become a crusader and just launched a new nursing home reform group.

"The purpose of this demonstration is to create awareness of the crisis . . . to unify and to take effective action," he said in a press conference.

The head of the Oklahoma ursing Home Association says there is no crisis. "As far as nursing homes go, the public has had almost the perception that this may be widespread or ongoing and I can assure you that it's not," says Kelly Hardin.

Sources tell CBS News, though, that this corruption probe is not over--even though VanMeter is in federal prison and nearly a dozen state employees have been fired or indicted.
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