Bill to keep veterans center in Talihina passes committee
OKLAHOMA CITY – State Rep. Jim Grego, R-Wilburton, announced Feb. 26 his bill that would stop the transfer of an Oklahoma Veterans Center from Talihina passed out of the House Rules Committee.
House Bill 1149 would repeal previous legislation that authorized the transfer of the center. The bill passed 6-2 in committee and is eligible to be heard by the House of Representatives.
“I’m thankful to each of the committee members who voted in support of this bill,” Grego said. “Hopefully we can get this measure heard on the House floor.
House Judiciary Committee Chair, Rep. Chris Kannady, who is a veteran, issued the following statement about the bill: “Representative Grego and I are continuing conversations regarding the future of the Talihina Veterans Center and how our state can best serve our veterans while ensuring rural Oklahoma has access to good jobs. Representative Grego is a strong leader for District 17, including my family and my hometown, and I appreciate his willingness to address difficult issues.”
It was announced this past 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 employees about 275 people. HB 1149 would keep the center in Talihina.
Cherokee Nation and Sallisaw officials, who along with Sequoyah County officials worked together to get the center moved to Sallisaw, recently 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.