After a brief pause owing to concerns raised by some Oklahoma legislators, efforts to close the Talihina Veterans Home have resumed with the goal to have residents out of the 102-year-old facility by Oct. 31 and so that it can be closed by Dec. 1.
Eleven residents remain at the Talihina Veterans Home, down from 36 just two months ago, according to Greg Slavonic, executive director of the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs. Five of those residents want to stay as long as possible there, Slavonic told members of the Oklahoma Veterans Commission during a meeting today. He said seven of the remaining residents have indicated they will go to one of the other six state veterans homes, while the two others will go either to a private nursing home or live with family.
A new nursing and residential veterans home being built in Salllisaw will eventually replace the Talihina Veterans Home and add bed capacity to the ODVA’s system. Originally, that facility had been proposed to open last month, but construction delays and complications with an architect have pushed back its completion to at least November 2024. Getting necessary federal regulatory approval to open the new home could take another three months.
When the Oklahoma Veterans Commission voted unanimously during a special meeting June 22 to close the Talihina Veterans Home, 36 residents were living there. Of the 25 who have since left, 23 have moved to other veterans homes in the state, Rob Arrington, director of homes, told commissioners Monday. All 36 have the option to move to the Sallisaw Veterans Home when it opens.
The Veterans Commission voted to close the Talihina facility before the new building at Sallisaw opens because the agency is losing $500,000 a month at Talihina owing to low occupancy and high contract employee costs. The Talihina Veterans Home at one time had an occupancy rate of 175 veterans.
However, days after the commission’s June 22 vote, Slavonic said he was summoned by Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) for a meeting to discuss the timeline of the Talihina Veterans Home closure. Others in the meeting were Sen. Warren Hamilton (R-McCurtain) and Sen. Paul Rosino (R-OKC), as well as Secretary of State and Native American Affairs Brian Bingman and Secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs John Nash. Following the meeting, Slavonic decided to pause the facility’s closure.
The senators said there were caught off guard by the closure occurring his year, Slavonic said, and there was some confusion over state law involving its closure. 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.
“It’s not like this was new to anybody, it’s just that we accelerated it,” Slavonic recalled after Monday’s meeting. “We wouldn’t be in this situation if Sallisaw would have already opened. It was supposed to have already opened.”
It ultimately was decided the Veterans Commission acted correctly by interpreting the 2022 law as giving it authority to close the Talihina Veterans Home instead of waiting until the new nursing home opens, Slovanic said.
Talihina still losing about $500,000 a month
At the June 22 special meeting, commissioners were told 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 granted their last-minute request in May for an $11.6 million appropriation increase to cover anticipated operating losses.
Lawmakers also approved about $22 million in 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.
Despite having only nine residents, the Talihina Veterans Home losses are still running about $500,000 a month, Slavonic said Monday.
The ODVA has offered 77 reduction-in-force packages to employees at the Talihina Veterans Home. So far, 39 have accepted the offer. The deadline to accept the RIF package is Sept. 15. The veterans home also has contracted employees who provide nursing and medical care work, and those numbers are also dwindling.
Employees will still be needed at the center once all the residents leave, Slavonic said. Tasks for those employees will include distributing equipment and vehicles to other centers and dealing with a large volume of paper files and health records. The agency will seek guidance on which records need to be digitized and which others can be destroyed.
“We need to get a feel of what can be destroyed and what we can maintain and where we’re going to maintain them,” he said. “We don’t know what is left undone when all the residents leave. You’re going to have to winterize the facility. There will be ongoing maintenance to make sure that we don’t have other maintenance issues by totally shutting everything down.”
The ODVA is working with the Office of Management and Enterprise Services on finding a buyer for the Talihina Veterans home property, he said.
Interim removed from Slavonic’s title
In other action Monday, commissioners voted 5-0 to make Slavonic the agency’s executive director.
Slavonic was hired in March by the Veterans Commission as interim executive director.
A former undersecretary of and rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, he was hired in March by the Veterans Commission after it ended its standoff with previous ODVA executive director Joel Kintsel. The Veterans Commission fired him after he had refused to attend meetings because he insisted some commissioners were “illegitimate” appointees.
Commission Secretary Sidney Ellington said Slavonic has been a good administrator and leader for the agency.
“He calmed everything down,” Ellington said.
Commission member Kevin Offel agreed.
“He’s done an excellent job of righting the ship,” Offel said.
Nash, the Cabinet secretary, complimented Slavonic for his leadership and communication skills, saying Slavonic calls him regularly to update him on agency issues.
“Director Slavonic is a rare leader,” Nash said. “It’s been a pleasure to work with him.”
Slavonic said he would like to complete the closing of the Talihina Veterans Home as well as see the completion of the Sallisaw Veterans Home and work to get pay raises for agency employees.
“There are good employees that work here, and I just think they weren’t treated right,” he said.
Commissioners also voted unanimously to authorize Slavonic to hire a certified public accountant to review the agency’s finances from the 2018 fiscal year through the 2023 fiscal year, which ended June 30. The agency also earlier requested a performance audit from the State Auditor and Inspector’s Office from January 2022 through December 2023.
Ideally, the financial reviews will help explain why the Sallisaw Veterans Home project came up short $22 million and why the agency needed a cash infusion of about $10 million toward the end of this year’s legislative session, Slovanec said.
“When I leave, I can hand off hopefully a clean audit from a performance standpoint, an equipment standpoint and a financial standpoint,” he said. “I didn’t have that luxury.”