By Bob Katzen
The Senate 39-0, approved 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.
The House has already approved its own version of the bill and a House-Senate conference committee will likely hammer out a compromise version.
Key provisions establish a new, full-time ombudsperson to receive, investigate and assist in resolving complaints related to the health, wellbeing and rights of veterans home residents and staff; require the Department of Public Health with regularly inspecting the two homes and making all inspection reports publicly available; elevate the Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans Services to a cabinet-level position; requires each home to have a full-time specialist in infection control and emergency preparedness and to adhere to medically-sound guidelines for trauma-informed care; and require state-operated veterans’ homes to accept Medicare and Medicaid payments to facilitate veterans’ access to health care.
“As the daughter of a veteran, I continue to be heartbroken for the families of those who lost their lives to COVID-19 at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home,” said Senate President Karen Spilka (D-Ashland). “The Senate will continue to lead in its efforts to support the brave men and women who have served our country.”
“The Soldiers’ Homes have long suffered from gaps in accountability and a confused chain of command, factors which left it unable to deal with a crisis like the one we saw with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Sen. Michael Rush (D-Boston), the sponsor of the bill. “The bill passed by the Senate today tightens these gaps, enhances the level of oversight by elevating the Secretary of Veterans’ Services to a cabinet level position and creates a stronger governing structure that supports our veterans and provides high quality care.”
“With the passage of this bill, the Senate recognizes the need to prioritize accountability and oversight, establish effective checks and balances and ensure clear chains of command at our state’s long-term care facilities for veterans in order to prevent the tragedy at Holyoke Soldiers’ Home from ever happening again,” said Senate Ways and Means chair Sen Mike Rodrigues (D-Westport).