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November 11, 2020

Inhofe in the Tulsa World: Work moving forward to improve VA services to local veterans

As we celebrate and honor those who have served this Veterans Day, it is important to remember how much our nation’s veterans have sacrificed for our freedom. They deserve — and have earned — the highest level of care, and thanks to the Trump administration, we have come a long way in our efforts to deliver on that promise, especially here in Oklahoma.

You might remember my shock and dismay when I first read a USA Today article published in 2015 about the Oklahoma Veterans Administration facilities — the conditions and situation were truly horrendous. After these terrible conditions were brought to my attention, I fought to ensure that our VA facilities were brought up to the highest standards of care. It became clear to me that we needed to provide authority for VA directors to fire poorly performing employees, extend the Veterans Choice program and allow independent, third-party oversight at VA facilities. With President Donald Trump’s signature in 2017, we enacted each of those reforms into law.

Our reforms have already improved patient care for our veterans, but we’re not done yet. Now we need to ensure that we have the infrastructure in place to support our veterans not just right now, but for years to come.

I believe it is vital to give local communities the power to make their own decisions. They know what is best for their citizens. The Communities Helping Invest through Property and Improvements Needed for Veterans Act, or CHIP-IN Act, provides communities the ability to forge a public-private partnership to support our veterans. In eastern Oklahoma, it became clear to everyone — from state and local governments to our universities and private investors — that we needed additional, updated infrastructure for our veterans. Nationally, the need for a state-of-the-art, modern behavioral health center was clear.

Once the need for additional infrastructure in eastern Oklahoma was identified, I worked with Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie to support our veterans by utilizing the CHIP-IN Act. With the help of state and local leaders, we crafted a plan to meet both goals: increase the care provided at the Jack C. Montgomery VA Center in Muskogee by adding a first-of-its-kind, regional behavioral health center, but also to open a brand new inpatient facility in Tulsa. This plan will allow veterans to get all of the care they need in eastern Oklahoma by providing excellent services at both facilities.

We all know that Oklahoma’s workforce is one of our state’s greatest assets. Our state has an extremely talented workforce and as part of this plan, we will retain virtually all of the jobs in Muskogee, while simultaneously creating hundreds of new jobs throughout the region.

The first step in this process will be to build a new hospital in Tulsa. Wilkie and Trump have also prioritized this project by including the first round of funding in the fiscal year 2020 federal budget request.

Second will be to shift the primary inpatient mission from Muskogee to Tulsa, while maintaining outpatient care at Muskogee.

The final piece will be to increase the mission in Muskogee by repurposing the portion of this facility that was previously utilized for inpatient services into a Department of Veterans’ Affairs Behavioral Health Center of Excellence and utilize the space further to address additional needs in the region.

Thankfully, we have an incredibly skilled and ready workforce in Muskogee, so any transition period will be minimal. When this plan is completed, our veterans’ needs will be better served and the workforces of Muskogee and Tulsa will prosper.

At the end of the day, this comes back to our veterans — and making sure they have the care they have earned; it’s just one way of saying “thank you.” I am honored to work with Trump and Wilkie to help bring this project across the finish line. Our work is not done, and it is imperative that we continue the work we’ve started. I look forward to doing just that.

Today, as we celebrate Veterans Day here in America, please take the time to thank a veteran in your community. They are the reason we have the freedoms we cherish.

U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, a Republican, is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

This op-ed originally appeared in The Tulsa World on November 11, 2020.   

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