Measure to Move State Veterans Center From Talihina Snubbed by House Panel

OKLAHOMA CITY (5 April 2017) – Legislation that would authorize the state’s military veterans center at Talihina to be closed and moved to another city was rebuffed Tuesday afternoon by a House panel.

Senate Bill 544 by Rep. Tommy Hardin, R-Madill, and Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Springer, failed on a 3-5 vote by the House Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee on Health.

Hardin maintained that SB 544 was simply “the first step in many,” spanning a period of perhaps three years, that would be required to move the Talihina veterans center.

The alternate site would seem to be Poteau, since SB 544 stipulates, “It is the intent of the Oklahoma Legislature that the new location be within forty (40) miles of the current location and within the city limits of a municipality having at least eight thousand (8,000) in population according to the latest Federal Decennial Census.”

Closing the center and moving it would require approval from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Hardin said, indicating the federal government would pay 65% of the cost and the State of Oklahoma would pay the other 35%.

The state’s share of the expense has been estimated at “around $20 million,” Hardin told the subcommittee. The Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs (ODVA) has a bond issue that will be retired by 1 August 2019, and renewing those bonds could finance the state’s share of the relocation project, Hardin suggested.

Federal Approval Essential to Proposal

He urged the subcommittee to approve SB 544, claiming the Legislature’s endorsement is essential to secure matching federal funds for the relocation project. He said the plan would be canceled if the U.S. Veterans Administration rejects the idea. “If the feds don’t approve, we don’t have the money to do it on our own.”

State appropriations to the ODVA have declined from $36 million in Fiscal Year 2015 to $31 million in the current Fiscal Year 2017, House ledgers reflect. In addition, the Legislature siphoned $1.7 million from the ODVA’s revolving fund last year to help plug the $1.3 billion budget hole for FY 2017.

Hardin said he wants a joint House/Senate interim legislative study to convene this summer or fall to thoroughly discuss the Talihina building, staffing levels, funding, etc., and said that afterward the legislators might recommend against moving the center.

But Rep. Sean Roberts, R-Hominy, pointed to a sentence in SB 544 in which the ODVA is “authorized and directed to proceed with the development of a new facility” to replace the Talihina center.

And Rep. Claudia Griffith, D-Norman, said endorsement of SB 544 at this stage would be counterintuitive. An interim study has not yet been conducted to determine whether the state should even proceed toward moving the veterans center from Talihina, she argued.

2 Deaths, Mold, Aged Facility

Two veterans residing in the Talihina center have died under gruesome circumstances, and the subcommittee members were told that the remaining residents are in “immediate jeopardy” because of the facility’s staffing problems.

However, Myles Deering, state Secretary of Veterans Affairs and executive director of the ODVA, said that with closure of the facility’s “special needs” unit, the staffing ratio at Talihina meets minimum staffing levels mandated by the federal VA and the state Health Department.

The ODVA contends that hiring and retaining staff members is difficult because of the center’s remote location in eastern Oklahoma.

In addition, the Talihina center needs some capital improvements. The institution was built in 1921, on land donated by the Choctaw Nation, to be a tuberculosis sanatorium; ownership of the facility was transferred to the state’s War Veterans Commission in 1975. The center’s 48-bed “special needs” unit must be closed by June 1, because of the circumstances surrounding one of the two deaths and because the unit is contaminated with mold.

Doug Elliott, deputy executive director of the ODVA, said that 31 of those 48 beds were occupied; 14 of those residents have since been moved to other facilities, and the 17 remaining patients will be transferred to the state’s other veterans centers by the June 1 deadline, he said

Besides Talihina, Oklahoma has a 175-bed veterans center at Ardmore, 302 beds at Claremore, 148 beds at Clinton, 200 beds at Lawton, 122 beds at Sulphur, and a 301-bed veterans center at Norman.

The Talihina center is licensed for 175 nursing care patients, but after the special needs unit is shut down the resident head count will be 127 and the center has been barred by federal VA investigators from admitting any new residents, Elliott said.

Responding to a question, Deering said the Talihina center has a chief medical officer, a nurse practitioner and X-ray equipment, but its laboratories are closed.

Renegar Blames ODVA Director

Rep. Brian Renegar, D-McAlester, said his constituents support the center and want it to remain where it is. Renegar, whose legislative district encompasses the Talihina veterans center, said the Choctaw Nation, the Kiamichi Technology Center and Eastern Oklahoma State College at Wilburton have all offered to help with staffing the veterans center.

He also asserted that the problems at the Talihina center should be blamed on the ODVA and its director, who has no training in health care administration.

Deering acknowledged that he’s not trained in health care, but, “I’ve been trained in managing large organizations.”

Afterward, Renegar said the ODVA could and should upgrade the Talihina center with funds it already receives.

ODVA Budget About $150M

Elliott said that for every veteran rated as less than 70% disabled who resides in one of the state’s seven veterans center, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pays the ODVA approximately $106 per day. For every veteran in a state center who’s rated as over 70% disabled, the VA pays the ODVA approximately $350 per day, Elliott said.

The ODVA currently operates on a budget of approximately $150 million, Elliott said. That includes $90 million from federal per-diem payments, $30 million in maintenance charges collected from private pay clients, and about $29 million in state appropriations (reduced from the original $31 million because of the latest state revenue failure earlier this year).

SB 544’s Turbulent History

SB 544 was favored by subcommittee Chairman Chad Caldwell, R-Enid; Rep. Glen Mulready, R-Tulsa; and Rep. Michael Rogers, R-Broken Arrow. Opponents were Rep. Mickey Dollens, D-Oklahoma City; subcommittee Vice Chairman Dale Derby, R-Owasso; Rep. Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow; and Representatives Griffith and Roberts.

SB 544 has encountered stiff resistance almost every step of the way.

Initially it failed in the 48-member Senate on a 23-20 vote last month, but passed on reconsideration, 34-7, after its title and emergency clause were stricken. Shortly after the bill was brought up for consideration Tuesday by the A&B subcommittee, a motion was made to restore the title and emergency clause; the panel spurned that motion on a 3-5 vote.



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Oklahoma House of Representatives
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