(Update: One week after the vote described below, Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs interim director Greg Slavonic announced that plans to close the Talihina Veterans home by Oct. 1 had been paused. The following article remains in its original form.)
Because the Talihina Veterans Home is losing $500,000 a month owing to low occupancy and high contract employee costs, members of the Oklahoma Veterans Commission voted unanimously this morning to shut down the outdated facility in about three months.
The 5-0 vote during Thursday’s special commission meeting means the century-old veterans home, built in southeast Oklahoma’s LeFlore County originally as a tuberculosis sanatorium, is targeted for closure by Oct. 1.
Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs deputy director Shawn Kirkland told commissioners the agency would be forced to ask the Legislature for additional funding next year if the Talihina home were to remain operational until the agency’s new Sallisaw Veterans Home is ready to open — something commissioners were reluctant to do after lawmakers in May granted their last-minute request for an $11.6 million appropriation increase to cover anticipated operating losses.
Lawmakers also approved about $22 million of one-time funding for the Sallisaw construction project, which has been delayed more than a year by complications with an architect and subsequent cost overruns. In 2018, the agency and its governing commission initially decided to close the Talihina Veterans Home only after the new Sallisaw center was completed.
But occupancy rates fell systemwide for the ODVA during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, the Talihina Veterans Home has only 36 residents and a total of about 120 employees. (Talihina’s resident capacity is 175 veterans.)
In 2018, the controversial agreement specified that residents at the Talihina Veterans Home would remain in the center until the new state veterans home opened. That residential facility, being built in Sallisaw, was originally scheduled to open next month, but construction delays have pushed completion back to October 2024. An inspection and other requirements by the federal Veterans Administration could delay the opening until January 2025.
In the meantime, a special study into the operations of the Talihina Veterans Home showed it was causing ODVA to lose $500,000 a month, interim executive director Greg Slovanic said. Most of the loss was attributed to low occupancy rates and high contracted employee costs.
“The finances of where we are are rather dark and troubling,” he said. “It’s going to be tough to navigate this over the next 18 months.”
Maintaining the Talihina Veterans Home, which was built in 1921 in the wooded hills just west of what became Lake Carl Albert, would require ODVA to ask legislators to appropriate $9 million over the next 18 months, Slavonic said.
“We are obviously balancing the need to be stewards of the taxpayer dollars and also fulfill our sacred duty of taking care of veterans and the employees who take care of veterans,” Commission Chairman Robert Allen said.
Slavonic, a former undersecretary of and rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, was hired by the Veterans Commission after it ended its standoff with previous ODVA director Joel Kintsel. The Veterans Commission fired him after he had refused to attend meetings because he insisted some commissioners were “illegitimate” appointees.
Slavonic said he expects Thursday’s decision to close the Talihina center will upset some.
“The reality, at the end of the day, is not everyone is going to be happy,” Slavonic said. “It’s about taking care of our veterans. It’s about taking care of our employees.”
Within three hours of the Veterans Commission vote, Rep. Jim Grego (R-Wilburton) issued a press release expressing his anger.
“This means 36 families have just 90 days to find a place to care for their loved one,” he said. “This is a disruption and a disgrace to these veterans who faithfully sacrificed and served our nation and their families who want to keep their loved ones nearby.”
Grego said he has been working to keep the Talihina Veterans Home open since he was first elected to legislative office in 2018. He said this latest news feels like the rug has been pulled out from under him and the constituents he serves.
“It’s beyond frustrating,” he said.
Talihina Veterans Home an ‘urgent situation’
Slavonic said Secretary for Military and Veterans Affairs John Nash has talked with several legislative leaders and the governor’s office about the Talihina Veterans Home’s dismal financial shape.
“This was an urgent situation because losing half a million dollars a month is problematic,” he said.
ODVA administrators were dispatched to Talihina on Thursday to talk with employees and residents about the decision to close the facility by Oct. 1.
“Bad news doesn’t get better with time,” said Slavonic, who was hired by the Veterans Commission in March.
ODVA will adjust spending to keep the Talihina center open until October without having to ask lawmakers for a supplemental appropriation, he said. However, Slavonic and Nash had already successfully requested an additional $11.6 million from lawmakers in May based on fiscal estimates that included continued operation of the Talihina Veterans Home.
Currently, the Talihina Veterans Home has 84 state employees. Another 38 contracted employees who provide nursing and medical care work at the center.
The state employees will go through the state’s reduction in force procedures, Kirkland said. If employees agree to work until the Talihina center closes, they will receive benefits that include 18 months of health insurance and payments based on their years of service and annual leave they are owed.
The 36 residents at Talihina Veterans Home represent a 21 percent occupancy rate, Kirkland said. The facility originally was designed to care for 175 residents.
The rural southeast Oklahoma center’s population has been decreasing steadily since the announcement was made in 2018 that it would eventually be closing. On June 30, 2017, Talihina had 120 residents. By 2021, the number was down to 66.
The number of residents being discharged has outpaced admissions for the past three years, Kirkland said. There were 20 admissions and 30 discharges in the 2021 fiscal year; 24 admissions and 32 discharges in the 2022 fiscal year; and 12 admissions and 23 discharges in the 2023 fiscal year.
ODVA has plenty of rooms for Talihina residents at its six other locations, Slavonic said. Overall, ODVA’s veterans homes have a 60 percent occupancy rate, down from 90 percent before the COVID pandemic, he said.
In addition to declining occupancy, the Talihina Veterans Home has growing maintenance issues, Kirkland said. It has old sewer and water lines and an old heating and air-conditioning system, which might require expensive repairs if the center were to remain open another 18 months.