Beacon Hill divided on soldiers’ home governance
No consensus on who should hire, fire superintendents
THE DEVASTATING toll COVID-19 took on the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home made headlines, and was even discussed at a congressional hearing. But attempts at reforming the home are coming down to a far less sensational debate that is largely about administrative bureaucracy: how to best structure the home’s governance to ensure leaders of the home are receptive and responsible to the veterans living there. A particular point of dispute is who should have power to hire and fire the superintendent.
The Massachusetts House on Thursday plans to take up a bill that would reform the governance of the state’s two veterans’ homes in Chelsea and Holyoke. But Inspector General Glenn Cunha warned, in a letter on a similar version of the bill, that the structure being envisioned “creates a risk of gaps in reporting and knowledge, and increases the likelihood of poor oversight and management.”
After the deaths of 77 veterans at the Holyoke home early in the pandemic, a legislative oversight committee was tasked with recommending reforms. The committee, led by Rep. Linda Dean Campbell and Sen. Mike Rush, recommended overhauling the chain of command to create more accountability and responsibility. Campbell said Thursday that she shares the inspector general’s concerns about the House Ways and Means Committee bill.
“I do have concerns about the lack of clarity in the chain of command between the superintendent to the governor,” Campbell said.
Individuals involved with the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition, a group advocating for reforms, worried that a statewide council would be less familiar with each community’s needs.
The bill reported out of the House Ways and Means Committee Wednesday addresses that concern by keeping separate boards of trustees at each home, with a statewide veterans’ homes council that includes all the trustees plus additional members. But the bill also adds additional layers of management.
The superintendent would be hired and fired by the independent veterans’ homes council. But the superintendent would report to a newly created Office of Veterans’ Homes and Housing within the Department of Veterans’ Services, an office that would have authority to implement laws and policies but not oversee the homes’ day-to-day operations. Veterans services would not be a cabinet-level secretariat. There would be new ombudspersons for each home and a new independent office for a veteran advocate.
Cunha’s letter says inserting the council in between the homes and the state agency will create confusion, and it is not clear who is accountable for overseeing the superintendent – which was part of the problem at Holyoke.
John Paradis, a founding organizer at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition, is advocating for a different model: He thinks the trustees should appoint and fire the superintendent. Paradis said he appreciates that the new version of the bill keeps separate boards of trustees. But it takes away a lot of the authority given to them. Paradis said the board should have “a level of autonomy and responsibility.”Paradis also worried about the bill adding additional layers of management. For example, Paradis said the veterans’ services secretary is an advocate for veterans, so hiring a veteran advocate is duplicative. “Our concern is they’re just creating multiple layers and more bureaucracy, and it’s not going to serve us well,” Paradis said.
In line with other recommendations of the oversight committee, the bill would establish regular state inspections of both homes and require both homes to be licensed by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which the Holyoke home currently is not. It would create additional reporting requirements and staff training programs. It would require the superintendent of both homes to be a licensed nursing home administrator – a qualification Gov. Charlie Baker has said he would prefer, but not require.