Oklahoma Veterans Affairs will build a new center in Ardmore to replace existing center
The Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs announced Wednesday it will build a new veterans center in Ardmore to replace an existing center in southern Oklahoma city.
“It appears that the stars and the dollar signs are aligning,” said Doug Elliott, executive director of Veterans Affairs, during a brief ceremony outside the Ardmore Veterans Center.
The announcement means two of the state's seven veterans centers — one in Ardmore, another in Talihina — will be replaced entirely over the coming years. Unlike the Talihina Veterans Center, the Ardmore center will remain in Ardmore, though it may move to a more rural location, which is Elliott's preference.
“There's an old Chinese proverb that says, ‘A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step.' Today, we are taking the first step of a long journey,” said Sen. Frank Simpson, an Ardmore Republican.
Simpson chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and is an outspoken supporter of Elliott, whose cost-saving practices and business-like approach to the state agency have proven controversial. Critics have alleged the agency is transforming veterans centers — which previously offered in-house lab and X-ray services — into nursing homes, marking a depreciation of care. Elliott and his legislative supporters have disputed that.
“Over the past month, I've had to address many false or inaccurate narratives involving the Ardmore Veterans Center,” Simpson told the small crowd gathered Wednesday. “Those included everything from closing the Ardmore center to turning the Ardmore center into a nursing home. Today, hopefully, we can put some of those false narratives and misleading information to rest.”
The federal government typically pays for 65 percent of state Veterans Affairs projects. Elliott anticipates the agency will file its grant application by the end of the year and will hear back from the federal government by next August.
“Right now, with all the cost savings we've found, there is $12 million in ODVA's coffers right now,” Elliott said. “At the start of next year, with those savings, that's $24 million. Guess what? We're home. We can make this obligation this year.”
Elliott said he first visited the Ardmore center three years ago, after becoming deputy director of Veterans Affairs. He found barrels in the hallways were used to catch rainwater and veterans were backing their wheelchairs up to space heaters for warmth. The new center will have private rooms and bathrooms, he and Simpson said.
“We're building two centers at the same time, as long as the federal government grants that money. If they don't grant the money, we may do it on our own," Elliott said.
On Sept. 24, Elliott first told the Oklahoma Veterans Commission, the governing board that oversees Veterans Affairs, that he was considering a new facility in Ardmore. He said that the current center is a century old and urged commissioners to act before it becomes further antiquated.
Some commissioners sounded supportive of the idea but others doubted the need for a new center, noting portions of the current center are only a few decades old. The commission will meet Oct. 26 to decide which eastern Oklahoma city will receive a new veterans center after it closes the one in Talihina.