By Bob Katzen

The House 156-1, approved and sent to the Senate a bill that would make major changes to the oversight and governance structure of the state’s veterans’ homes in Holyoke and Chelsea. The proposal follows the deaths of 77 veteran residents in 2020 as a result of a COVID-19 outbreak at the Holyoke facility.

Key provisions include requiring superintendents of the two soldiers’ homes to be licensed as nursing home administrators and either be a veteran or someone with experience managing veterans in a nursing home or long term-care facility; establishing an ombudsperson for each facility to advocate on behalf of the veterans and staff; requiring the Office of Veterans’ Homes and Housing to submit an annual report including findings on the quality of care provided at the homes at each facility; establishing a 17-member statewide Veterans’ Homes Council to manage and control the homes and confirm and remove superintendents; and establishing the Office of the Veteran Advocate, an independent office that will be led by a person appointed by the governor, attorney general and auditor.

“I believe this comprehensive bill takes the necessary steps to protect deserving Massachusetts veterans,” said Rep. Paul McMurtry ( D-Dedham), House chair of the Veterans and Federal Affairs Committee. “It’s not about partisan politics, and it’s certainly not about control. It is first about ensuring that a tragedy like this never happens again and providing our veterans the best possible care we can. I believe this legislation takes the necessary steps forward toward achieving that worthwhile goal.”

“Today, with the best interests of our veterans and their families in mind, the House took action to ensure greater accountability and oversight for veterans’ homes in Massachusetts,” said House Speaker Ron Mariano (D-Quincy). “This legislation takes significant steps to change how our veterans’ homes are governed and managed and establishes protocols that are designed to identify and correct any examples of mismanagement or inadequate care as quickly as possible.”

“I don’t think this bill address the core concerns of the people who testified before the investigatory committee,” said Rep. Chris Markey (D-Dartmouth) who cast the only “No” vote. “I [favor] a centralized chain of command and a single person who is responsible for the hiring and firing of the superintendent.”

Rep. Linda Dean Campbell (D-Methuen) voted “Present” on the bill. “Like the Inspector General of the commonwealth, I have serious concerns about the new bill,” said Campbell who along with Sen. Mike Rush (D-Boston) last year had filed a different bill that she says was more comprehensive. “The Inspector General has stated in a letter his ‘office finds that the current and proposed structure for the governance and oversight of the homes are flawed,’” said Campbell.

Campbell said that her bill included provisions that are not in the current measure including ones that would have elevated the secretary of veterans’ services to a full Cabinet-level position and given the governor authority to appoint or remove a facility’s superintendent and deputy superintendent based on consultation with other officials.

Campbell continued, “In the original bill filed, we identified qualifications for service on a statewide council with expertise in financial management, health care administration, clinical services, treatment of PTSD and labor relations, among others. Our original bill intends for statewide representation on this council, as these homes are for all veterans in the commonwealth, not just veterans located geographically near to the homes. Accordingly, the original bill also calls for participation by a female veteran, the fastest growing population of any veterans’ group and a member of the LGBTQ veterans’ community, among other veterans’ groups that served in various conflicts. The bill passed by the House … has none of these provisions and no qualifications to serve on this council.”

(A “Yes” vote is for the bill. A “No” vote is against the bill.)

Rep. Christine Barber Yes Rep. Mike Connolly Yes Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven Yes

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