Oklahoma rep files bill to keep vet center in Talihina
OKLAHOMA CITY – State Rep. Jim Grego on Jan. 17 announced he has filed legislation to stop the transfer of an Oklahoma Veterans Center from Talihina.
House Bill 1149 would eliminate the authorization to transfer the center that was first granted by legislation passed in 2017 and signed into law by former Gov. Mary Fallin.
“This center is important to the veterans who are housed there, to their family members who visit them, to the hundreds of employees who work there and to the community of Talihina, which relies on this significant employer,” said Grego, R-Wilburton. “There is no reason the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs can’t update this existing facility to better accommodate the needs of its residents.”
The center is relocating following a history of poor management and poor care of veterans.
It was announced last fall the Oklahoma Veterans Commission and the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs would move the 175-bed, long-term veterans care center from Talihina to Sallisaw within the next three to five years. The center employs about 275 people.
HB 3042, passed by the Oklahoma Legislature in April, mandated a new center be located not more than 90 miles or two hours from Talihina, the release states. Sallisaw is about 70 miles from Talihina.
Grego said he’s acting in the best interest of the veterans in the Talihina area and of his community. He serves Dist. 17 in the Oklahoma House, which covers parts of Latimer, Le Flore and Pittsburg counties.
However, Cherokee Nation and Sallisaw officials, who along with Sequoyah County officials worked together to get the new center moved to Sallisaw, denounced Grego’s bill in written statements.
“There might be disappointment from areas that weren’t selected as the site for the state’s new veterans center, and we understand that frustration, but at the end of the day what matters most is that our veterans have a modern facility for care and with employees who can provide services they deserve after giving so much to protect our lives and freedoms,” Principal Chief Bill John Baker said. “The city of Sallisaw, Sequoyah County and Cherokee Nation came to the table months ago to offer the Oklahoma Veterans Commission a location in Sallisaw, just off Interstate 40, so it’s easily accessible. The city has technological infrastructure and an identified strong workforce already in place, with recruitment and training resources available from Cherokee Nation Career Services. These measures, we feel, will make for a successful new veterans center in Sallisaw that ultimately will help thousands.”
Sallisaw City Manager Keith Skelton echoed Baker’s sentiments saying the city and its partners acted in good faith to relocate the center and that Sallisaw is the best location for it.
“The city of Sallisaw, Cherokee Nation and all of our partners, came together and in good faith prepared responses and presentations to the RFP proposition for relocating the veterans center,” Skelton said. “For the benefit of veterans and their families, we feel Sallisaw is the best location to enhance their care and quality of life. Our proposal and presentation exhibited Sallisaw’s desire to partner with the Veterans Commission in providing our veterans the best possible facility and care. Our community is very excited about the veterans and this facility.”
According to a 2018 press release, the CN has pledged up to $300,000 to help with relocation and startup costs for the new center on a 90-acre campus and support through its Career Services program to secure the center’s workforce. It also states the CN already offers veterans support programs with its Veterans Center being a place to gather and fellowship as employees assist veterans in accessing Veterans Administration benefits.
The release also states the CN and VA hospitals also have agreed to better care for Native American veterans by providing primary care and sharing chart information.