Jon Santiago: ‘Everyone is rooting for a veteran’
FOR A TIME, it seemed like Jon Santiago was juggling every job he could. The US Army reserve major worked as an emergency room doctor at Boston Medical Center during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic while serving as state representative. He even briefly mounted a run for mayor of Boston.
Now, he’s taking on a new role, serving as Gov. Maura Healey’s secretary of veterans’ services. Santiago is heading an office separated out from the broader health and human services secretariat as part of a 2022 law responding to what leaders have described as egregious mismanagement of soldiers’ homes in Holyoke and Chelsea that contributed to fatal Covid outbreaks and miserable working conditions.
Santiago, who is 41 and one month into his tenure, has a trust-building task ahead of him along with the practical task of overseeing facilities and benefits for more than 270,000 veterans in the state. He’s energized by the challenge.
Santiago, a native of Puerto Rico, traces his desire to practice medicine to a childhood in his adopted hometown of Boston. When he was young, Santiago said, his uncle was diagnosed with HIV and would later die from AIDS.
“I would trace a lot of my interest in medicine and public health to those experiences, particularly looking at what I would call the social determinants of health,” he said. “How people who grow up in poor communities, ones that lack economic opportunity, educational opportunity, don’t seem to fare as well. “
A winding path took Santiago to rural Texas – “a couple hundred people, one general store, one Baptist church” – then college, then the Peace Corps, then working as a Fullbright Scholar through Europe, Latin America, and Africa. He returned stateside to attend medical school at Yale, enlisting in the US Army reserve while a medical student, finally landing back home in Boston with his “dream job since I was a kid, to work at Boston Medical Center, which was formerly known as Boston City Hospital,” Santiago said.
He kept that dream job while winning election to the South End legislative seat formerly held by the late Mel King and Byron Rushing. He said the Legislature was a good fit for him, even before COVID-19 hit.
“For me, I knew I wanted to do both,” Santiago said. “It’s something about being in the ER that really changes your life. You’re in a place, particularly at Boston Medical Center, the busiest trauma center in New England, the city safety net hospital, where you’re caring for some of the poorest folks in the city, across the state. And it’s always a reminder when you walk in there, what are the real issues happening on the ground when someone is shot, when someone loses their housing, when someone has any mental health issue or, or drug issue, you see it in a very real way.”
In the height of the pandemic, Santiago worked one to three night shifts a week in the emergency room on top of his legislative load. “I was young and healthy,” he said. “I had recently completed my training as an emergency medicine physician, and so I effectively doubled my hours during Covid.”
After a short-lived bid for Boston mayor in 2021, Santiago says he would have remained in the House of Representatives had Healey not tapped him to lead Veteran’s Services. He was offered the post while deployed in Syria over the holidays.
Santiago has had to “take the Band-Aid off” and deal directly with the painful legacy of mismanagement at the two veterans’ homes in Holyoke and Chelsea, which he said are making solid strides under the new law.
“My task really is to build out the foundation in order to do the job that we need to do,” Santiago said. “I want to make sure that every veteran knows that we have their back and we’re committed to working with them.”
T’s biggest challenge: An analysis by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation indicates hiring may be the MBTA’s biggest challenge, with retirements and departures for other reasons making it difficult for the transit authority to make any hiring headway. Raising staffing levels is key to improving service, completing capital projects, expanding operations, and achieving safety goals. Read more.
State population continues to shrink: New Census numbers, which show the state’s population continuing to shrink, underscore Massachusetts competitiveness issues. Read more.
Not so clean: James Aloisi, the former transportation secretary and TransitMatters board member, reveals the “dirty secret” about electric vehicles. Read more.
HDIP debate rages on: Rep. Antonio Cabral of New Bedford says the Housing Development Incentive Program, or HDIP, addresses the critical need for middle-income housing. Read more.
Right to strike: Steven Tolman of the AFL-CIO and Max Page of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, make the case for why teachers should be allowed to strike. Read more.
ARPA tools: New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell says ARPA is giving mayors the tools they need to address COVID and the future. Read more.
Unions the answer: Frank Callahan of the Massachusetts Building Trades Unions says organized labor could be the answer to the state’s worker shortage. Read more.
FROM AROUND THE WEB
Will the state’s green-lighting of sports betting lead to more problem gambling? (Boston Globe)
The Washington Post says the Justice Department has gathered fresh evidence pointing to obstruction efforts by former president Donald Trump in connection with top-secret documents found at his Florida home.
The Boston Herald continues to pound away at the lack of transparency in the office John Kerry is heading as climate advisor to President Biden.
The Easthampton School Committee abruptly rescinded its superintendent job offer to Vito Perrone in an executive session Thursday night, reportedly because of a “microaggression” referring to committee chair Cynthia Kwiecinski and executive assistant Suzanne Colby as “ladies” in the beginning of an email. (MassLive)
Bless Woo! Worcester is one of the country’s most challenging places to live with seasonal allergies, according to a new report, in large part because of several cool-season grasses around the city. (Worcester Telegram)
Three former officials in the attorney general’s office come before the Supreme Judicial Court this week seeking relief from disciplinary actions for their roles in the state drug lab scandal. (WBUR)
Attorney General Andrea Campbell’s office reached a $40 million settlement with minority police officers who alleged that the state promotional exam for law enforcement officials was racially discriminatory. (Boston Herald)
New England Public Media has an interview with police policy expert Jim Jordan about his March 19 commentary piece in CommonWealth on the likelihood of much better outcomes resulting if police officers simply slow down in dealing with many situations once they arrive on the scene of a call.MEDIA
Has the press learned how to better cover Donald Trump? The runup to his scheduled court appearance tomorrow suggests not, says Jon Allsop. (Columbia Journalism Review)