BOSTON, Mass. (SHNS)–After witnessing devastating COVID-19 outbreaks at veterans’ homes and nursing facilities, a North Adams Democrat is advocating for a potential major restructuring of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS), a sprawling secretariat that accounts for almost 60 percent of the state’s budget.

The proposal from Rep. John Barrett (H 3669) would create a commission to examine the “effectiveness of the organizational structure” of EOHHS, which houses MassHealth and 11 agencies, including the Department of Public Health, the Department of Mental Health, and the Department of Children and Families. It is the largest secretariat under the executive branch and about one in three residents are served by an EOHHS agency or program, the office estimates.

EOHHS has a “serious problem,” Barrett said at a legislative hearing, as he questioned the secretariat’s capacity to handle complex foster care cases and implement a bevy of new mental health initiatives passed by the Legislature in recent years amid all of its other responsibilities.

“I speak with passion about this because I am concerned, and I think the state should be concerned about this,” Barrett told the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight on Tuesday. “We have to do something now, and I hope that this will be the year that we can establish some kind of commission to take a good look at this because what I’ve seen is scary.”

The committee sent a prior version of Barrett’s bill to study last year. Committee co-chair Rep. Antonio Cabral said Wednesday the issue “certainly” needs to be evaluated. “I think it’s probably time to have a conversation also with the present administration” around offices that could function independently of EOHHS, Cabral said, including the Executive Office of Elder Affairs. Cabral indicated there’s recent examples of reorganization in the executive branch to support Barrett’s request.

The Healey administration established the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities this year, which separated the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. The Executive Office of Veterans Services is also a new secretariat and no longer part of EOHHS, as lawmakers looked to provide stronger oversight of the Soldiers’ Homes in Holyoke and Chelsea.

Under Barrett’s pitch, the commission — composed of lawmakers, health officials and public administration experts — would gauge whether EOHHS should be split into several Cabinet-level offices to “optimize the performance of the office” and to “allow the departments, commissions and offices overseen by the office to more efficiently and effectively carry out their respective missions and duties and better serve the needs of the commonwealth.”

A report with recommendations would be due by March 1, 2024, under the bill.