State lawmakers have spent months alternating between Casper and Buffalo as the best potential site for a state-run nursing home for veterans. The competition has understandably led to tension between the two cities — but it appears to have also caused strife within the Buffalo community.
“There has been quite a divide in Buffalo over the nursing facility,” Johnson County Commissioner Bob Perry said. “The hospital and Agape Manor (nursing home) are both opposed to it because they feel that it will be in competition with them for healthcare providers.”
The Wyoming Legislature is trying to find the best location in the state to build a nursing home for veterans that will be partially funded by the federal department of Veteran Affairs.
Perry said he is “very disappointed” that some community members aren’t supportive of hosting the home in Buffalo.
“It’s one of the few opportunities we’ve had recently to provide more employment in the area,” he said.
A public meeting was held Monday to help bridge the divide, Perry said. The Johnson County Commissioners and the Buffalo City Council met with the leaders of the Johnson County Healthcare Center. The center operates a hospital, clinic, hospice program and nursing home in Buffalo.
Perry said they came to an understanding that the county commissioners will try to assist the health care center by raising their mill levy if the veterans nursing home becomes a burden.
“The Board of Commissioners of Johnson County currently levy 3 mills per year for operation of the Johnson County Memorial Hospital District pursuant to Wyo. Stat. 35-2-414,” states a copy of the agreement. “... Wyo. Stat. 35-2-414 authorizes the Board of Trustees to request an increase of the mill levy beyond 3 mills, but not more than 6 mills, subject to approval by a majority of those voting within the Hospital District.”
John Osse, the healthcare center’s interim CEO, said Thursday that he’s comfortable with the agreement. Though it’s been a divisive issue, Osse said the conversation has stayed civil.
“The discussions with the County Commissioners and the City Council have all been professional,” he said.
That is a significant improvement, according to Perry. The commissioner said the former CEO of the healthcare center — who left about two weeks ago — refused to speak with the county commissioners about the new nursing home.
Seven physicians at the healthcare center signed a letter written by Dr. Alyse Williams that was sent to state lawmakers last month. A copy of the letter states that Buffalo is not the best site for a new nursing home.
“I chose to be a physician not only because I wanted to help people but (because) I want to do what is right for the current healthcare system,” Williams wrote. “Placing a skilled nursing facility in a community with already limited resources does not accomplish that goal.”
Perry said he believes there was inaccurate information about the facility circulating through the community. The nursing home will only need two registered nurses and six certified nursing assistants, he said, but some were under the impression that it would require 30 health care providers.
Steven Adami, the owner of Agape Manor, a private nursing home in Buffalo, said he still doesn’t believe Buffalo is the best spot.
“We have an extreme shortage of CNAs,” he said, explaining that he doesn’t think the city has enough healthcare providers to support his facility, the health care center and a new nursing home.
Adami said he’s also dismayed that proponents of the project in Buffalo have led a “very aggressive local campaign.”
Lobbying efforts should stay in Cheyenne, he said.
Explaining that he believes the lack of healthcare providers is a legitimate concern, Adami said he thinks it’s unfair that he’s been scrutinized for his stance.
Adami said he heard Rep. Richard Tass, R-Buffalo, state on the radio this week that a businessman in Buffalo was afraid of competition and wanted to keep his employees “as slaves.”
“It was discouraging to hear that,” Adami said. “This campaign has made this a hot button issue that it just didn’t need to be. At the end of the day, what was accomplished is a lot of hard feelings within the community.”
In an email to the Star-Tribune on Friday, Tass said he regretted his comment and wished no ill will toward Adami.
“I am not a full-time politician and I do better working cows in the corral at home (than) I do here as a (legislator),” he wrote. “I will admit the slave comment was a little strong and I apologize for saying it. I did not intend to single out a single person.”
Tass, a Buffalo resident and Vietnam War veteran, said he believes the site in Buffalo is the best option because it offers relaxing views, open spaces and is located 45 minutes from the veterans hospital in Sheridan.
Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, said Monday that he hopes Buffalo will resolve its internal conflicts.
“The most painful part of this whole process is just the divide within Buffalo over whether the home should be there or not,” he said in an interview with Sheridan Media. “... When this session gets over we’ve really got some work to do as a community to come together.”
As of Wednesday, Casper is the latest choice to host the new nursing home. After hearing from representatives of both cities, the Senate Committee on Transportation, Highways & Military Affairs selected Casper as the best location.
Casper and Natrona County representatives have said in recent months that Casper is the best site for aging veterans because the city has a wide range of medical care specialties and providers, as well as an airport that is open every day of the year.
Buffalo representatives have argued that their city is the better location because it already hosts the Veterans’ Home of Wyoming, an assisted living facility.
Veterans who reside at the home would prefer to stay in Buffalo when it’s time to transition to a nursing home, Perry said.
After Wednesday’s news, City Manager Carter Napier said Thursday that he isn’t celebrating just yet.
“We still have a lot more work to do,” he said. “We have to watch it go through the Senate discussion and then the conference committee. This is just one more stop along the route.”