One week after the Oklahoma Veterans Commission voted to close the Talihina Veterans Home by Oct. 1, those plans are now on pause.
Greg Slavonic, interim executive director of the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs, confirmed today that efforts to shut down the facility in three months will stop after legislators raised concerns over timing.
A new nursing and residential veterans home being built in Salllisaw will eventually replace the Talihina Veterans Home. That facility had been scheduled to open next month, but construction delays and complications with an architect have pushed back its completion as far as January 2025. Construction is scheduled to be completed in October 2024, but getting necessary federal regulatory approval could take another three months, officials say.
The Oklahoma Veterans Commission voted unanimously June 22 to close the outdated Talihina Veterans Home because the facility is losing $500,000 a month owing to low occupancy and high contract employee costs. On that day, commissioners were told the Talihina home had only 36 residents, which represented 21 percent of its 175-veteran capacity. Since then, another eight residents have departed, dropping the occupancy rate to only 16 percent.
Slavonic, hired in March by the Veterans Commission, said the decision to halt closure proceedings came after a meeting with Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC), Sen. Warren Hamilton (R-McCurtain), Sen. Paul Rosino (R-OKC) and Secretary of State and Native American Affairs Brian Bingman.
Hamiltion issued a press release Wednesday regarding those talks.
“After meetings and conversations with key leaders, those plans are on hold while the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs works closely with the Legislature to find a better solution,” he said. “It is easy for competing priorities to become confused when the situation is tense and fluid, which this situation clearly is. We must always put our obligation to our veterans first.”
‘Not forcing any veterans out of the home’
Slavonic said a few words of state law have been interpreted differently among parties. SB 1814, which was passed and signed into law in 2022, struck a provision from a 2018 law that stated the Talihina Veterans Home “shall continue until such time as operations are transferred” to the veterans home being built in Sallisaw. The Veterans Commission thought the 2022 meant it could close the Talihina Veterans Home instead of waiting until the new nursing home opens. Some lawmakers disagreed.
“I’m not trying to challenge the Legislature,” Slavonic said. “We’re wanting to be teammates, good players and work with everyone. We’re just trying to understand all of this.”
Slavonic said he was unaware of the language in SB 1814. He plans to discuss the matter with Secretary for Military and Veterans Affairs John Nash and Commission Chairman Robert Allen.
“I’m just waiting for the commission to give me some guidance on what they want to do,” he said.
Commissioners were told during a special meeting June 22 that ODVA would need additional funding next year if the Talihina home were to remain operational until the agency’s new Sallisaw Veterans Home is ready to open. Commissioners expressed reluctance to do that 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 agreed to close the Talihina Veterans Home only after the new Sallisaw center was completed, as specified in the 2018 law.
But a special study into the operations of the Talihina Veterans Home showed it was causing ODVA to lose $500,000 a month. Commissioners were told that 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 ODVA staff talked with the Talihina Veterans Home’s residents and approximately 120 employees to explain the plans to close it by Oct. 1. He said ODVA is not rushing residents to move.
“The ODVA or the commission is not forcing any veterans out of the home. We’re not forcing anyone out,” Slavonic said. “We’re not going to have any more discussions with residents unless they want to have a discussion about relocating. Literally, everything is at a pause right now.”
World War II veterans to be recognized in Norman
Slavonic a former undersecretary of and a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, is scheduled to be at the Norman Veterans Center on Friday to help recognize 14 World War II Veterans who live at the facility, 1776 E. Robinson St.
The ceremony, scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., will feature a keynote address from Vice Admiral Jeffrey Trussler, a native Oklahoman who serves as deputy chief of naval operations for information, chief of naval operations and director of naval intelligence.