Beacon Hill divided on soldiers’ home governance

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.

The bill proposed by Campbell and Rush suggested eliminating the boards of trustees of the Chelsea and Holyoke homes and replacing them with a statewide advisory council, to ensure consistent governance across both homes. It recommended making the secretary of veterans’ services a cabinet-level position and establishing a chain of command from the home superintendents to the secretary of veterans affairs to the governor, who would have power to hire and fire the superintendent.

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.

SHIRA SCHOENBERG

 

FROM COMMONWEALTH

School mask mandate ending: Gov. Charlie Baker is lifting the school mask mandate on February 28, although schools who desire to do so can keep their mandate in place. Expect a patchwork of policies across the state. The statewide mandate is being lifted just as students return from vacation, which worries some school officials who fear students who have traveled could bring the virus home with them and into school. Read more

Co-existing with COVID: Three of the state’s leading health care executives said that COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are trending in a very positive downward direction, but they were divided on when and how people will be able to move on and learn to live with the virus as a part of everyday life. 

– Kevin Churchwell, the president and CEO of Boston Children’s Hospital, said he is not ready to co-exist with COVID-19, but Kevin Tabb of Beth Israel Lahey and Anne Klibanski of Mass General Brigham say adaptation is the key. Klibanski said there is no returning to life pre-COVID. Tabb adds: “The virus will not go away. The virus will be with us in different ways and shapes and will affect us differently over time. We as a society and we as a health care system do in fact need to learn to adapt to the different phases that we’re going to see with this virus.” Read more.

Fare-free pilot all set: Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announces a two-year, fare-free pilot on three MBTA bus routes will begin next month paid for using $8 million of the city’s federal COVID relief funds. The two-year duration gives Wu time to build support for free buses across the state and also means the pilot will end after Gov. Charlie Baker, an opponent of eliminating fares, leaves office. Read more.

Scenario planning: The Health Policy Commission mulls what it would do if a “bad scenario” emerges with Mass General Brigham’s performance improvement plan. The plan is due March 13, and commissioner David Cutler is concerned that the commission and Mass General Brigham could get caught in an endless loop of proposals and rejections. The Mass General Brigham performance improvement plan, which is supposed to rein in the hospital system’s cost growth, is the first ever imposed by the agency. Read more.

OPINION

Applause for PLAs: Frank Callahan, president of the Massachusetts Building Trades Unions, applauds President Biden for signing an executive order requiring project labor agreements on all federal construction projects valued at more than $35 million. Read more.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

Nine protesters briefly entered the State House, which has been closed to the public for more than 700 days. (State House News Service) 

Gov. Charlie Baker and his former chief of staff, Steve Kadish, are co-authoring a how-to-get-things-done book about the challenges and opportunities to move an agenda forward in government and large organizations. (Boston Globe

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

New Bedford is in line to get $30 million to expand capacity at the New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal. (Standard-Times)

Tensions are emerging between Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and a bloc of labor union-friendly city councilors over the city vaccine mandate for municipal employees. (Boston Globe

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Classified materials appear to have been among the White House documents that former president Donald Trump improperly took to Florida when he left office. (New York Times

ELECTIONS

YWCA executive Robyn Kennedy pulls papers to run for the Worcester area state Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Harriette Chandler. (Telegram & Gazette)

A masked intruder showed up at the Woburn offices of the Massachusetts Republican Party, ranting at staffers that they are fascists and threatening to return with a weapon. Party officials said he was a defense attorney and backer of Democratic candidates. (Boston Herald

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Susan Collins, a Black economist and administrator at the University of Michigan, is named president of the Boston Federal Reserve Bank. (Associated Press)

EDUCATION

Boston schools superintendent Brenda Cassellius pens a Washington Post op-ed sounding the alarm over the pandemic-era exodus of teachers and other critical school staff members – though neither the piece nor the author ID tagline disclose that she will soon be among them. 

A day after three female graduate students filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Harvard professor John Cormaroff, 34 of 38 Harvard faculty members who originally signed a letter of support for him issued a new letter retracting their backing. (Boston Globe

Moving up: Wendy Williams went from teen mother at 15 and high school dropout at 16 to eventually getting her PhD and landing a tenure track faculty position at Bridgewater State University. (The Enterprise

Rev. Eugene Rivers says a new group of Boston mothers will lead the charge for greater safety, including the deployment of police officers, in Boston schools. “People are going to respect the voices of Black mothers,” Rivers said at a meeting announcing the group, though the voice of the head of the new organization, Isabella Harris, who sat next to Rivers at the announcement, is not heard in the story. (Boston Herald

ARTS/CULTURE

New Bedford city councilors are holding up Mayor Jon Mitchell’s plans to use a big chunk of federal ARPA funds on arts-related initiatives, according to columnist Jack Spillane.. (New Bedford Light) Mitchell talked about his plan for arts funding on a recent episode of The Codcast

The official portraits of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama will make a stop at the MFA this fall. (MassLive)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

The state police are sending decks of cards featuring victims in unsolved murder or missing persons cases into prisons, in the hope of getting tips from inmates. The Patriot Ledger looks at some of those cases featured from the South Shore area. 

MEDIA

Six magazines, including Entertainment Weekly, InStyle, and Parents, are dropping their print versions and going digital-only. (Wall Street Journal)