By Nick Reynolds
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — After a drawn out tug of war between Casper and Buffalo for the recommendation to host a new skilled nursing facility for Wyoming veterans, the Legislature has made its final decision: It’s going to Johnson County.
Following weeks of location-changing amendments to a bill authorizing the construction of the facility, the Wyoming Senate — days after switching the location for the fourth time — voted 24-6 on Thursday to build the facility in Buffalo.
The switch came shortly after a Senate committee voted to amend the bill — which passed the House of Representatives — and change the facility’s location to Casper.
The bill will now go to Gov. Mark Gordon’s desk for his signature.
Thursday’s vote brings a conclusion to one year of study and debate over where to construct the state’s first skilled nursing facility for veterans: in Buffalo, Casper or Sheridan. Casper — with more existing medical infrastructure, a larger skilled workforce and its central location in the state — was considered a top choice.
However, Buffalo, which has been the home of the Wyoming Veterans’ Home for more than a century, won out as the final choice, largely due to its potential to offer a continuum of care for residents at the home, said Johnson County Commissioner Bill Novotny.
“The operational cost savings by not having a sixth state facility is really what swayed the most votes. Despite what (The Star-Tribune) has said, I have never been about economic development,” Novotny said, referring to a recent editorial by the Star-Tribune’s editorial board. “I have been about the veterans in my community and in that facility and their desire to stay.”
“Our longest resident has been there for more than 30 years,” he added. “When he asks you to help him stay so he doesn’t have to leave the only home — he’s a Vietnam vet, and has a lot of issues — those are your marching orders. This has taken a lot of twists and turns, but in the end my community will come out stronger and better.”
Throughout the debate, proponents for the facility in Buffalo have contested several issues raised by supporters of building the facility in Casper, which has a larger hospital with close proximity to where the facility would be built and a larger skilled workforce. Others, like Sen. Charlie Scott, R-Casper, argued that a thorough marketing study had never been completed, expressing doubt that the demand for such a facility in Buffalo would be sufficient to sustain it in the long-term.
Novotny said otherwise.
“Some of the concerns that were raised were more structural issues with the VA healthcare system than they were with Buffalo,” Novotny said. “It’s time to focus on getting this facility done and caring for our veterans.”
The Buffalo medical community had been split over whether or not the facility would be able to draw the sufficient number of staff needed to run the facility, with seven physicians writing a letter to lawmakers telling them that Buffalo was not the best location to build the facility in.
In testimony earlier this week, Novotny pushed back, arguing that Buffalo’s regional economy, as well as the ability to draw talent from the nearby communities of Gillette and Sheridan, would allow them to fulfill their needs.
“If you’ve talked to Commissioner Novotny, they believe they have a few years from today to actually build the workforce we need,” Wyoming Veterans Commission director Steve Kravitsky said.
If signed by the governor, the administration of the veterans home in Buffalo will immediately begin the behind-the-scenes work to fund the construction of the building, Kravitsky said.
Having already undergone two separate studies by April 15, administration will have to file a grant application through the VA for its state home construction grant program — which would cover 65 percent of the building’s cost. Within a few weeks, they will find out whether or not their application was successful. After that is complete, a third study will be completed to help inform the design of the facility with the assistance of the state Legislature.
By June 2020, a final application with the VA will be due and, by that December, the state will know for certain whether or not it has been approved for funding through the federal government.
“Once that goes through, we’ll actually start digging and building the facility,” Kravitsky said.
The facility, Kravitsky said, will be built to be compatible with the current assisted living facility already standing in Buffalo, in order to give it a similar “at-home” feeling that exists in the standing, historic building already on site.
“When we’re doing the design, we’re going to want to incorporate some of that ‘Green House model’ into the facility, so we don’t have a highly institutional feel,” he said, in reference to a model of care seen in a currently operating assisted living facility in Sheridan. “We want it to feel more like a home.”