BOSTON (SHNS) – A bill reshaping the oversight and governance of state-run soldiers’ homes is on its way to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk.
The House and Senate on Thursday unanimously approved a compromise bill, submitted one night earlier by negotiators, that would implement new management structures and chains of command for the Holyoke and Chelsea Soldiers’ Homes.
Dozens of veterans died from COVID-19 in both facilities, and a devastating outbreak that hit the Holyoke home in March 2020 prompted a string of outside investigations, intense scrutiny of failures by its leaders and Baker administration higher-ups, and criminal charges.
The bill lawmakers advanced (H 5106) incorporates many of the recommendations a special commission offered after spending nearly a year probing the Holyoke crisis.
Sen. Michael Rush, who co-led both the investigative panel and the conference committee that produced the final bill, called it “a great day for the veterans of Massachusetts.”
The bill would pull the secretary of veterans’ affairs out from the Executive Office of Health and Human Services and elevate it to a Cabinet-level position, giving the secretary a direct line of communication to the governor and also assigning them with final responsibility for hiring and firing superintendents to lead each soldiers’ home.
“Make no mistake, the lines of authority and responsibility during the Holyoke tragedy were very badly muddled because a clear chain of responsibility, authority and reporting did not exist,” Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, the House chair of the legislative commission that examined the outbreak, said in prepared remarks Thursday. “This was our most fatal mistake in the whole matter.”
The bill would also require the state-run soldiers’ homes to be licensed long-term care facilities and their superintendents to be licensed nursing home administrators, create a statewide Massachusetts Veterans’ Homes Advisory Council and an Office of Veterans’ Homes and Housing within the executive branch, and impose new inspection requirements at the homes.
Both branches approved reform bills earlier this year, but they were at odds over several major sections. The House’s bill did not make any change to where the Department of Veterans’ Services fell in the executive branch hierarchy, and it also gave authority to the statewide council to appoint superintendents.
Dean Campbell voted present during the House’s first debate on what she called “a very different bill” than the version she originally filed alongside Rush.
The Methuen Democrat was happy with the changes made in conference committee negotiations, saying Thursday that it would “accomplish what we set out to do — to address not only the how, but the why of this tragedy.”
“We cannot guarantee character, but we can require transparency, standards of care, and most importantly a clear chain of command, responsibility and accountability,” Dean Campbell said.
Baker, who faced sharp criticism over how his deputies oversaw the Holyoke facility before the outbreak and responded when crisis hit within its walls, sought some narrower reforms two years ago. Lawmakers opted instead to conduct their own investigation and use its results to build a wider-ranging bill.
The governor said Thursday he wanted to “wait until I see the bill before we make any decisions about it” and added that his team was “very much hoping that this was one of the conference committees that would find a way to reach agreement and legislation would get to our desk on this so we could sign it.”
“The issue itself, obviously, is borne out from some of the confusion around who reported to who and who talked to who and what the chain of command was during the early days of the pandemic when this terrible tragedy occurred,” Baker said. “I’m certainly hoping that the final version of this will address all of those issues because they’re important.”