The Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs put out a request for proposals last month for site selection for a new Talihina Veterans Center in southeastern Oklahoma. The veterans nursing home came under scrutiny following the deaths of two veterans. The new center can be located within 90 miles or 2 hours of Talihina. The Journal Record’s Sarah Terry-Cobo reports residents of Talihina are fighting to keep the facility in their small town.
Jacob McCleland: You’re listening to the Business Intelligence Report, a weekly conversation about business news in Oklahoma. I’m Jacob McCleland. I’m talking today with Journal Record senior reporter Sarah Terry-Cobo. Sarah, thank you for joining us.
Sarah Terry-Cobo: Hi Jacob, absolutely, it’s my pleasure to be here.
McCleland: Sarah, let’s get an update today on the Talihina Veterans Center in southeastern Oklahoma. This is a nursing home for veterans that has been under the microscope of lawmakers for a number of years now. About a month ago, the state Veterans Affairs Office issued a request for proposals to relocate the center. What are some of the qualities that the agency is looking in a new Veterans Center site?
Terry-Cobo: So they want to know how many workers are available in the area, how many local support services there are nearby, how suitable the property will be if it is an existing building, or what the site will look like if it is undeveloped land. They also want to know economic indicators in the area. How they will maintain operations during the transfer? And it has to be within 90 miles or 2 hours driving distance of Talihina.
McCleland: Before we go any farther, give us some background here. Why are they considering the closure of this facility in the first and relocating it elsewhere?
Terry-Cobo: Right, so the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs has cited a number of issues, including some black mold within a few buildings, not enough workers, kind of a revolving door there in terms of staff, and perhaps most importantly, the deaths of two veterans. That seems to be pretty straightforward, as far as the agency is concerned. However, the former mayor of Talihina and town trustee, Don Faulkner, says the whole process has been politicized.
McCleland: Has there ever been an audit of this facility?
Terry-Cobo: Well, there have been audits in the past and there’s another one that’s coming up to be released pretty soon. The State Auditor and Inspector’s office is doing that right now, and he’s coordinating with Attorney General Mike Hunter.
McCleland: What have been some of the staffing challenges at the Talihina center?
Terry-Cobo: Well, they’ve got a new executive director, for one, as well as many new staffers. Faulkner says it has been difficult to recruit people and to keep people. The requirement is that a staffer must spend at least 2.8 hours of time per patient per day. Faulkner says as of February they were well above that.
They need 260 people to work at the center. And in a town of about 1,000, that’s about a quarter of the population.
McCleland: What are leaders in Talihina doing to keep the veterans nursing home in their community?
Terry-Cobo: Well, they’re trying to spread the word and provide evidence that it is viable. Faulkner talks about the upgrades that have been made to some of the buildings in the center and the added staff hours per patient. He says there is also land the city owns that could be used to build a new center. But it is not yet clear if the town or someone in the town has submitted a proposal within this RFP process.
McCleland: Talihina is a very small town. What do leaders of the community say will happen if the veterans center closes and moves elsewhere, because as you mentioned, this is a really big workforce for this community?
Terry-Cobo: Exactly, exactly. So, the Chamber of Commerce Director Vera Nelson says it will erode the city’s tax base. If people don’t have jobs, they won’t buy houses and they’ll move away. That’s her fear. And she says it’s the city’s largest employer. And that’s the case in many small towns, right. A hospital or large health care facility like this is the largest employer.
McCleland: You mention the tax base. I imagine if you take away those employee salaries at the veterans center, that’s a lot of money that won’t be spent there in Talihina.
Terry-Cobo: Right. When you think of the appropriations of what the Department of Veterans Affairs has requested for that center, it’s like $7.5 million just for the payroll alone. That’s about half of the total appropriations for a year for an operating cost - $15 million. That’s a lot of money for that small town.
McCleland: What do we know about any proposals that Talihina has put forward to rebuild the veterans center in their community?
Terry-Cobo: We won’t know yet. We’ll know in August when the RFP process is complete. That’s when those names of those bidders will become available.
McCleland: Sarah Terry-Cobo is the Journal Record’s senior reporter. Sarah, thank you so much.
Terry-Cobo: Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Jacob.
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