Monday’s announcement that a new $173 million U.S. Veterans Affairs Hospital is part of President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget is big news for the city of Tulsa and the veterans of northeastern Oklahoma.
The proposed hospital would occupy the Kerr-Edmondson state office complex on Houston Avenue between Third and Sixth streets. Plans call for the building to be completely renovated and additional space added. The federal government would cover $120 million of the project with the balance from local and state governments and philanthropic sources.
The site is across the street from Oklahoma State University Medical Center, and the hospital will be integrated into the OSU Medical Center complex.
As part of the plan, the Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center in Muskogee would receive a $28 million makeover, re-emerging as a VA behavioral health facility. That’s expected to result in more beds and no fewer jobs. It also will mean that a critical need for veterans care will be met better in northeastern Oklahoma.
The new Tulsa hospital will bring VA services to people who need it. U.S. Census figures for 2017 show Tulsa County had 38,794 veterans, 9,199 of whom had a service-related disability. Some 3,431 of those were rated at 70% disability or more. For many of those veterans, the 55-mile distance to Muskogee might as well be on the other side of the Earth. The solution is obvious: Instead of expecting the veterans to travel to the services, bring the services to the veterans.
Ground was broken last year on a 172,000-square-foot Tulsa VA clinic near 91st Street and South Mingo Road. The future Ernest Childers VA Health Care Center will offer primary care, specialty care, mental health, dental surgery and outpatient surgery starting next year, but that will still leave an in-patient service gap for local veterans, which the new hospital fills.
The old saying is that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. So too with new VA hospitals.
Word going around town is that the Anne and Henry Zarrow Foundation and Oklahoma State University were essential parts of Tulsa landing the VA hospital.
It’s obvious that Gov. Kevin Stitt’s office was in on the deal. The Kerr-Edmondson land transfer was disclosed in his budget documents.
There’s little doubt that U.S. Sen. James Lankford, U.S. Rep. Kevin Hern and U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin all played important roles, and I suspect that U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe — a veteran, a Tulsan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a lifelong advocate for veterans — was especially critical in our congressional delegation’s work on this one.
Inhofe and I disagree on a lot of things and occasionally he says and does things that make me cringe. But I’ve never doubted his commitment to using his office to improve life for the people of Oklahoma. Our state has sent others to Congress who didn’t think bringing bigger and better government services to Oklahoma was part of their job. Not Inhofe. Without him, I doubt Interstate 44 would have been widened through Tulsa or that there ever would have been federal funding to get people out of the Tar Creek Superfund site.
In the news release announcing the VA plan, Inhofe remembered how national headlines about troubled VA care in Oklahoma spurred him to action.
“I will never forget the USA Today headline from 2015 — the one that outlined how we were falling short in taking care of our veterans in Oklahoma,” Inhofe said.
The newspaper reported that rates of in-hospital complications and adverse events following surgeries and procedures at the VA medical center in Oklahoma City were among the highest of VA facilities across the nation. The facility had had five directors in three years and was awaiting the appointment of a sixth. The VA’s performance ratings gave the hospital one star out of five.
The story included the unforgettable picture of Tulsan George Purifoy, who was missing most of his nose and front teeth and suffered from debilitating pain. He had complained of severe pain after radiation therapy damaged the bone under his nose, but VA clinicians in Muskogee and Tulsa thought it was a dental problem and sent him for root canals and other procedures, the newspaper reported.
Inhofe didn’t dismiss the USA Today stories as false news. Instead, he got busy.
“I’ve passed laws to change the policies that enabled the bad behavior,” Inhofe said. “I’ve increased accountability at our facilities, including having outside auditors evaluate the facilities.”
The facility under construction in southeast Tulsa and the one planned for downtown are the biggest steps in that process.
Inclusion of the Tulsa veterans hospital in the president’s budget doesn’t mean that the project will happen. It still has to go through congressional authorization and appropriations processes, but we’re a lot closer to this important goal today than we were a week ago, and no one should doubt that Inhofe will be riding herd on the process until it’s done.