BOSTON, Mass. (SHNS)– Senators lined up unanimously Thursday in favor of a series of management and oversight reforms at the state’s two veterans’ homes, setting up a potential negotiation showdown with the House nearly two years after a COVID-19 outbreak killed dozens of veteran residents in both the Holyoke and Chelsea facilities.

The Senate voted 40-0 to approve legislation (S 2739) crafted from recommendations a legislative commission made after studying the spring 2020 tragedy at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home and broader challenges both state-run facilities faced.

Targeting breakdowns in communication and poor decision-making that contributed to the crisis, the Senate bill would elevate the secretary of veterans’ services to a Cabinet-level position, establish a new process for the executive director of the Office of Veterans’ Homes and Housing to appoint superintendents at each home, create a Veterans’ Homes Advisory Council and regional councils, require regular inspections of the two homes, and mandate both facilities to have trained experts in infection control and emergency preparedness on hand.

“In the early days of the pandemic, the commonwealth failed to protect 78 veterans at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home and 31 veterans at the Chelsea Soldiers’ Homes who were in our care and died during the rampant COVID-19 outbreak,” said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Sen. Michael Rodrigues. “As we approach the second anniversary of this tragic event, I am proud of this chamber for its thoughtful work to ensure that moving forward, our veterans receive the care they deserve and that these systematic failures never happen again.”

The House last month approved its own version of a soldiers’ home reform bill (H 4441), which varies in several major areas from the legislation that cleared the Senate on Thursday. Differences in the two bills could push lawmakers to create a conference committee to negotiate a final version, further delaying final passage of reforms crafted in response to a tragedy that happened nearly two years ago.