Sallisaw wins bid for new veterans center

Visitors tour the Talihina Veterans Tour in January 2017.
By: 
Amanda Corbin
News Reporter

Poteau did not win the bid for the relocation of the Talihina Veterans Center after the Oklahoma Veterans Commission met in the Vezey Veterans Complex in Oklahoma City on Friday for the final vote.

Poteau Mayor Jeff Shockley told the newspaper on Friday afternoon that Sallisaw won out. Poteau, Sallisaw and Muskogee were the finalist cities announced in late September. The governor signed legislation earlier this year to authorize the construction of the new center, which will care for up to 175 veterans.

"Poteau made an excellent proposal and we are disappointed obviously in the decision," Shockley said. "We learned a lot about our community in the process."

Shockley said he would like to thank the Veterans Commission and staff for having the open, competitive process.

"We had an excellent committee, and a special thanks to Rep. Rick West for his unwavering support. We truly believe when one door closes another opens. We will pursue creating jobs for the Poteau area as priority No. 1. We will be actively recruiting an industry that fits Poteau and provides good paying jobs. We remain positive and excited about our future."

VA officials have touted the center's age, city water, a small labor pool and other staffing issues at reasons to close the center and relocate.

Supporters of the center remaining in Talihina continue to fight against the relocation. Veterans Affairs moved forward with seeking out a new location, despite a scathing 75-page special audit released in early August from Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones, which recommended the VA seek an independent evaluation for cost effectiveness and impacts to service before relocating any veteran center.

The audit also alleged a "culture of fear and intimidation" for VA employees by central management and with Talihina employees further alleging to auditors a concern about the central office trying to sabotage the center by firing employees, removing medical equipment, closing the Special Needs Unit, not allowing veteran input and allowing a hold on admissions.

The audit said that management's "negative statements about the Talihina center in the press might give the impression that they are not responsible for the condition of the center, even as they centralize various functions, removing facets of the center’s autonomy one by one."

Specific projects noted was the closure of the Special Needs Unit due to mold in the HVAC system instead of replacing the unit or cleaning the ventilation system.

The audit said the center's request to update its Nurse Call System was denied by the central office clinical compliance nurse. A boiler replacement project was also canceled at the center, which led to the need for emergency repair costs.

The center underwent national controversy after two resident deaths in the fall of 2016 and in early 2017. The first death involved a man who reportedly had maggots in a wound, which was not the cause of death. The second reportedly choked on a plastic bag in his throat.

These deaths "led to the resignations and terminations of various employees, including a physician’s assistant and three nurses. They also led to a lengthy process through which central management eventually succeeded in having a nurse practitioner’s license revoked," the audit noted.

The audit is available on the state auditor website at www.sai.ok.gov/Search%20Reports/database/ODVA17WebFinal.pdf.

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