SHERIDAN — Legislators on the Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee voted for the Veterans’ Home of Wyoming in Buffalo to be the location for the first veterans skilled nursing facility for Wyoming.
Despite the preliminary decision, incoming Rep. Cyrus Western, R-Big Horn, said the bill and final decision has a long journey ahead. The discussion started later than anticipated and went beyond the time allotted for Tuesday afternoon in Cheyenne. Representatives attending the meeting from the final three potential locations — Sheridan, Casper and Buffalo — advocated for their respective communities and why veterans would be best served.
Western, who represents Sheridan County for the Legislature, said he’s obviously biased for Sheridan and other legislators will be similarly biased in their respective areas of representation.
“At any one of those stages, anyone could easily go up and make an amendment to put in Sheridan (during the general session),” Western said. “Anyone from the Casper delegation could do it too.”
Ultimately though, Western said, he believes legislators will make a decision in the general session that gives veterans the best services possible.
“At the end of the day, sure, there will be plenty of bickering, but I believe legislators will come to higher perspective,” Western said. “Ultimately, it’s not about getting built, it’s about meeting demands of [veterans in need].”
Sheridan Mayor Roger Miller attended the meeting and advocated for Sheridan as the most fitting location to house the veterans skilled nursing facility. Green House Living for Sheridan — which would build a facility for veterans skilled nursing in association with its current operations if chosen as the location — administrator Michelle Craig also attended the meeting in Cheyenne but did not return calls made by The Sheridan Press by press time Thursday to discuss the decision.
Sheridan Veterans Affairs Health Care System public affairs officer Kristina Miller said she attended many of the public meetings regarding the decision, but no one at the center was involved with any decisions made about location at this point.
“As far as we’re concerned, any state skilled nursing facility…is going to be great for veterans,” Miller said.
The original eight locations reviewed all fall within the area served by the Sheridan VA, so any of the three final locations will still serve the veterans in the range of Sheridan’s VA.
“(Our services) cover three quarters of the state,” Miller said. “Honestly anywhere in the state would have been helpful.”
Studies to determine best fit for the first facility in Wyoming determined Sheridan to be the least appropriate option. Study results indicate Sheridan would serve fewer veterans than Buffalo or Casper indicated, has a higher resident nurse wage meaning higher costs for the state, and has the highest cost of living index out of the three options. Sheridan was also marked down for percent of forested land and a terrain ruggedness index. Final weighted scores put Casper as the top option, followed closely by Buffalo and Sheridan trailing the two by margins of .3 and .4. Cheyenne came in as a better contender than Sheridan by .11 points.
Buffalo boasted cheaper construction costs and administrative costs, as the existing facility there would need updating rather than being built from scratch, and many of its employees now would be utilized for future skilled nursing operations.
Rep. Richard Tass, R-Buffalo, and Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, who both represent both Johnson and Sheridan counties, advocated for Buffalo as the location for the facility.
“While I think it would be great to build a new $20 million facility, I’m not yet convinced that it’s necessary,” Kinskey said. “Seven million dollars of that is state money that can and should go to the highest need that the veterans may have.”
Kinskey mentioned the benefit of Buffalo providing continuity of care between the current facility and heightened medical attention that would come with the addition of skilled nursing.
To access that care, it was uncertain whether the facility would need to be remodeled or just reconfigured to accommodate for the new services.
Kinskey said he understood the current home to be sufficient for the needs of the new facility.
If a remodel is necessary, it would bump the grant prioritization for the project with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs down from its current position at 1.2. The prioritization levels start at 1 and descend to 1.2, 1.3 and so on. A 1.2 priority, which Wyoming Veterans Commission Director Steve Kravitsky said is what the commission is currently aiming for, means there is an unmet bed need in the state.
“Redoing Buffalo is a reconstruction grant, which would lower us to a 1.4b (priority),” Kravitsky said. “I do not think we’re going to see an infusion of funds to bring us to the $700 million level that they had last year. All I can tell you today is we, the team that did the study, has talked with the VA; they concur that the grant we’re going for right now is a 1.2, which the only thing that trumps it is a life safety grant.”
Kravitsky said the commission is poised to receive the grant associated with a 1.2 priority, which would have been a positive for the Sheridan and Casper locations that planned to build completely new facilities.
Legislators first recommended Sheridan for those reasons, but the amendment to the bill outlining the elements associated with establishing the skilled nursing facility failed. Legislators then recommended Buffalo as the site facility, and the amendment passed.
The joint committee will sponsor the bill with Buffalo as the chosen location for the upcoming Legislative session.