Bill scraps boards of trustees at soldiers’ homes
Creates cabinet-level secretary of veterans services
A LEGISLATIVE COMMITTEE charged with recommending reforms to the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home after a devastating COVID-19 outbreak released a 12-page bill on Thursday that would revamp the leadership and organizational structure of both the state’s veterans’ homes. The key change would eliminate the current boards of trustees at the Chelsea and Holyoke soldiers’ homes, replacing them with a statewide advisory council.
The bill was designed based on the oversight committee’s earlier report, which found that governance flaws and a “crisis of leadership” contributed to the deaths of 77 veterans in the early days of the COVID virus at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. The bill now goes to the Legislature for consideration, and it will be up to the House speaker and Senate president if and when to bring it up for a vote. Individual lawmakers can recommend changes through the amendment process.
“This legislation defines comprehensive reforms for systemic and critical governing deficiencies that were present before the COVID-19 outbreak occurred and that created the perfect storm for this preventable tragedy,” said Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, who co-chaired the committee along with Sen. Mike Rush, in a statement. “Governing deficiencies included no clear lines of chain of command, accountability, and responsibility, among others.”
Today, the Chelsea and Holyoke Soldiers’ Homes are overseen by the state but run independently from one another by their own boards of trustees – leading some critics to charge that the Holyoke home has been less well-funded and less well-run than the Chelsea home. Both homes have had historic problems with staffing and facilities.
The bill would replace the boards of trustees with a statewide advisory council to oversee both homes and two “local stewardship bodies,” which would serve as community advocates for each home. The intent would be to create more consistent governance between the two homes, while also allowing local input.
On an administration level, the bill would remove the Department of Veterans Services from the Executive Office of Health and Human Services and instead make the secretary of veterans services its own cabinet-level position with an independent executive office. The goal, according to the report, would be to ensure more timely filling of vacancies and quicker attention to staffing issues and to eliminate unnecessary rungs in the chain of command.
But the new leadership proposal is already raising concerns about what it might mean for local control. Paul Barabani, a former home superintendent who is now active in the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition, a group advocating for reforms, said he worries that a more centralized system would harm local services in Chelsea and Holyoke, since people in each home know best what services are required there.
“I think if you look at the character and mission of what was happening at Chelsea and Holyoke, they’re two different homes,” Barabani said.
For example, Barabani said, the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home instituted a dental care program, and he worries that a central board might not have allowed that, saying, “if we don’t have one here [in Chelsea], we can’t have one there [in Holyoke].”
Barabani also worried that if the advisory council members are all appointed by the governor, as envisioned by the bill, the council will be beholden to the governor, not the veterans.
In addition to the changes to leadership structure, the bill would make changes to the appointment process for the leaders of each home.
The bill would create a new, transparent process for hiring and firing the superintendent and deputy superintendent, after the state’s initial attempt at firing Walsh ended up in court over questions of process and authority. It would also institute annual performance reviews for all home leaders. After the outbreak, several reports noted that there were concerns raised about Walsh’s management long before the pandemic.
Each home would need to employ a specialist in infection control and emergency preparedness, and new requirements would be instituted around emergency preparedness training and reporting to state officials during an emergency.The bill would require that both homes be certified by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which subjects a home to additional oversight and inspections, and pursue a top rating with regards to staffing. Currently, the Chelsea home is certified, but the Holyoke home is not.
There would also be an ombudsperson position created and an emergency hotline available to residents, families, and staff. The ombudsperson and hotline are meant to address concerns that families were left in the dark during the outbreak.