Lawmakers reach agreement on Soldiers’ Home governance

Secretary of veterans services will become cabinet role

LEGISLATIVE NEGOTIATORS have come to an agreement on how to overhaul the governance of the state’s two Soldiers’ Homes in Holyoke and Chelsea. 

A bill released Wednesday evening lays out a new administrative structure for the homes, which elevates the Secretary of Veterans Services to a cabinet-level position while also creating a new independent Office of a Veterans Advocate. The bill represents a major bureaucratic restructuring with multiple levels of oversight and administration aimed at improving the management of the homes.  

The Senate also announced the formation of a new working group, chaired by Sen. John Velis, a Westfield Democrat and military veteran, to review the bill’s implementation and identify issues that may require future legislation. 

“This legislation contains important improvements that will benefit the men and women who have served our nation and will reside at our Commonwealth’s veterans’ homes for the years to come. At the same time, we know that this work must continue,” Velis said in a statement. “The working group established will allows us to have oversight over this implementation, to identify what we need to improve on further, and to continue to work to ensure that the tragedy that took place at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home never happens again.” 

After 77 veterans died at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home amid an outbreak of COVID-19 in March 2020, multiple investigations identified problems with the home’s management and governance. A legislative committee held hearings and released recommendations. But agreeing on the details of what a new chain of command would look like proved complicated. One major tension was between the desire to have local control of each home and the need for better coordination and standardization between the two homes.  

Both the House and Senate passed bills that would adopt many of the recommended changes from the investigations, but the bills had been sitting in a conference committee since March. The compromise released Wednesday was signed by all six members of the conference committee – four Democrats and two Republicans.  

Both branches are in session Thursday and could vote then to send the bill to Gov. Charlie Baker.   

Senate President Karen Spilka, Speaker of the House Ron Mariano, and lead conferees Senator Michael Rush and Representative Joseph Wagner said in a joint statement, “Nothing can alleviate the pain of the families who lost loved ones to COVID-19 at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, but we can ensure that we act to prevent a similar tragedy in the future…. We look forward to taking this legislation up shortly to get it on the governor’s desk soon.” 

The bill would elevate the Department of Veterans Services to a cabinet-level executive office, with the secretary reporting directly to the governor. Currently, the Department of Veterans Services is under the auspices of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.  

The secretary would be required to appoint an executive director of veterans’ homes and housing who has experience in health care management and the military. The executive director would oversee the implementation of laws and policies related to the veterans’ homes and would be responsible for making policy recommendations, but would not have control over the day-to-day operations of the homes, which would be left to the homes’ superintendents.  

The Secretary of Veterans Services would have the ability to hire and fire superintendents. Currently, the question of who has authority to fire the superintendent ended up in court, after Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders tried to fire Holyoke Superintendent Bennett Walsh after the COVID outbreak, only to be told by a judge that only the home’s Board of Trustees has that authority.  

One debate between Baker and lawmakers has been whether the homes’ superintendents must be licensed nursing home administrators. The legislation says the superintendent must be a licensed nursing home administrator who is also either a veteran or has experience managing veterans in a long-term care facility. The bill sets out specific roles the superintendent must fill, including a deputy secretary position. 

The bill creates a new statewide advisory council, the Veterans’ Homes Council, to advise the secretary on ways to address veterans’ needs. The council would review the homes’ operations and make policy recommendations. It would in some cases act as a liaison between the trustees and the secretary. Earlier drafts of the bill would have replaced each home’s board of trustees with the statewide advisory council, which raised concerns about eliminating local control. The final version maintains five-member boards of trustees at each home, who will be appointed by the secretary of veterans services with gubernatorial approval.  

The bill also creates an independent Office of the Veteran Advocate to ensure all veterans receiving state services are well-treated, and it requires the appointment of an ombudsperson at each home to resolve complaints.  

It enhances oversight of the homes by requiring that the Department of Public Health inspect each veterans’ home at least twice a year and every 30 days during emergencies, and by requiring veterans’ homes to become licensed long-term care facilities.  

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Until now, the Chelsea and Holyoke Soldiers’ Homes had different levels of oversight, since the Chelsea home was accredited by Medicare and subject to federal inspections and the Holyoke home was not. The Holyoke home was inspected by the federal VA, but, unlike other nursing homes in the state, it was not licensed or inspected by the Department of Public Health. Now, both homes will have to be Medicare accredited and undergo state inspections.  

The bill also lets the home superintendents set up training programs for medical residents and nurses as a way to increase the pipeline of trained staff.