Talihina veterans home closes this week, future of 600-acre property remains unclear
Construction won’t be complete on Sallisaw veterans home until next year
The Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs will close a state-run veterans home in Talihina this week. The last remaining residents moved out Thursday. (Photo by Carmen Forman/Oklahoma Voice)
OKLAHOMA CITY — A state-run veterans home in Talihina will close this week, roughly one year before construction of a new facility in Sallisaw will be complete.
Although the Talihina facility wasn’t originally slated to close until the Sallisaw home opened, construction cost overruns and delays in building the new veterans home led the Oklahoma Veterans Commission to vote in June to close the Talihina location earlier than expected in a cost-saving measure.
Due to low occupancy rates at the Talihina facility, Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs staff estimated the state would lose about $5 million this budget year if the home remained open.
It’s unclear what will happen to the 600-acre property on which the Talihina veterans home is located.
When the Veterans Commission voted to close the Talihina home by Oct. 1, a date that was pushed back to Nov. 1 amid criticism from state lawmakers, the 175-bed facility was home to 36 residents. The last two residents moved out Thursday, said Shawn Kirkland, Department of Veterans Affairs deputy director.
About 30 residents moved to other state-run veterans homes. One died, and the remaining veterans transferred to private nursing homes, he said.
Kirkland said the transition was smooth.
“It’s not ideal to have to move that many residents to different towns and different centers, but they were all great through the process and have settled in at their other facilities,” he said. “Of course, they’ll have the first opportunity to go to Sallisaw when it opens up.”
Most of the employees at the veterans home accepted severance packages offered by the agency and will be eligible to work in Sallisaw when the new facility opens, Kirkland said. Closing the facility will cost the agency an estimated $3.9 million, in large part due to employee severance.
The home had 84 employees on staff and 38 contract employees when the agency’s governing board made the decision to close the facility.
The Sallisaw veterans home was originally scheduled to be open by now, but the opening was pushed back after the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs encountered construction flaws that are the subject of a lawsuit. Now, the project is about $20 million over budget and construction is expected to be complete in fall 2024.
What’s next for the property?
Kirkland said the agency is working with the Office of Management and Enterprise Services to determine what happens to the Talihina property. OMES sought buyers for the property last year, but no sale occurred after the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations argued the land should revert back to their tribes.
The tribes previously donated the land to the state for a tuberculosis sanatorium that opened in 1921. The property became home to the veterans home many decades later.
“The Office of Management and Enterprise Services is working with the Oklahoma Department of Veteran Affairs on future uses of the property,” OMES spokeswoman Christa Helfrey said in an email. “We are looking into the tribes’ rights and looking at ways to work together for the betterment of all Oklahomans.”
The tribes did not respond to requests for comment.
Rep. Jim Grego, R-Wilburton, has fought against closing the Talihina veterans home in his district since he first took office.
The closure has been in the works since 2018 due to the age, location and condition of the facility.
Many of the local residents who had family members in the facility will now have to drive more than 100 miles to visit their loved ones, Grego said.
The veterans homes closest to Talihina are more than two hours away in Claremore and Sulphur.
Back in its heyday, the Talihina veterans home was a place veterans wanted to live and local residents wanted to work. That changed when the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs first announced plans to close the facility, Grego said.
Veterans didn’t want to move to a home when they would have to move again within a few years, he said.
The state’s six other veterans homes also are experiencing low occupancy rates due in large part due to the COVID pandemic, and Grego said he’s concerned other communities may face similar closures.
“My fear is whenever they get Sallisaw open with a couple hundred new beds, that they’re going to start finding another one to close,” he said.
Kirkland said the Department of Veterans Affairs has no plans to close other veterans homes.
The agency next plans to build a new veterans home in Ardmore to replace the current facility that was built in 1910.
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