BOSTON (State House News Service) —Senators will be asked to vote next week on a suite of oversight and management reforms at the state-run veterans homes in Chelsea and Holyoke, the product of a lengthy legislative investigation into a deadly COVID-19 outbreak that erupted nearly two years ago.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee on Thursday favorably reported a new version (S 2739) of omnibus legislation Sen. Michael Rush and Rep. Linda Dean Campbell filed in September, scheduling it for debate on March 10.
Like a version that the House approved last month, the bill would require the top official at each soldiers' home to be a licensed nursing home administrator, create ombudsman roles to oversee the homes, and create a new statewide council to advise operations.
Top House Democrats had reworked the original bill in several key sections before advancing and approving it, drawing criticism from some veterans' advocates who wanted to see Rush and Campbell's plan embraced.
While senators will have until 2 p.m. on Monday to file amendments, the bill that moved through the Ways and Means Committee hews more closely to the original proposal than to the House redraft.
The legislation due for a vote in the Senate would elevate the secretary of veterans' services to a Cabinet-level position, a change that the House stripped from the original proposal, according to a bill summary.
Backers say lifting that secretary out from underneath the Health and Human Services umbrella would establish a clearer chain of command -- something that investigations found was not present while COVID-19 swept through the Holyoke facility -- and give the office direct access to the governor.
"The thinking is we wanted to be very clear that there is a very clear chain of command," Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Michael Rodrigues told the News Service. "The bill is all about accountability. And in order to ensure accountability, it requires a clearly articulated chain of command with checks and balances, and that's what we believe our bill accomplishes."
Rush and Campbell's bill was the end product of a legislative special committee that investigated the early-2020 coronavirus outbreak at the Holyoke facility, where at least 76 military veterans died of COVID-19.
On Friday morning, the national commander-in-chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Matthew "Fritz" Mihelcic of Illinois, plans to visit the Holyoke Soldiers' Home along with Maj. Gen. Gary Keefe, the state's adjutant general, on a "fact-finding opportunity" to "check on improvements and progress made" since the deadly outbreak. Keefe chairs the facility's Board of Trustees.
The Senate bill also includes language designating seats on a newly proposed Veterans' Homes Advisory Council for female, nonwhite and LGBTQ veterans and requiring some of the panel's members to have specific qualifications and eligibility, such as professional knowledge in long-term health care or "experience treating post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans."
Rush and Campbell wove similar standards for the panel into their bill, but the version that cleared the House appeared to strip out requirements for certain professional experience or guaranteed slots for underrepresented communities.
In a departure from both other versions of the bill, the Senate Ways and Means Committee proposal would assign responsibility for appointing and removing soldiers' home superintendents and deputy superintendents to the executive director of veterans' homes and housing.
The administration's secretary of health and human services, the Veterans' Homes Advisory Council and new regional councils for each facility would be required to nominate superintendents, and they could recommend a superintendent's removal, but they would not have the authority themselves to hire or fire.
Rush and Campbell proposed giving the governor authority to select and remove soldiers' home superintendents and deputy superintendents based on consultation with other officials. The House bill would have required the statewide advisory council to make appointments after reviewing nominations submitted by each home's board of trustees, and given the council authority to remove a superintendent following a recommendation by a trustee board or the governor.
Campbell ultimately voted present on the House bill, declining to support or outright oppose it, after Democrat leaders recast several sections.
If the Senate ultimately enacts a bill with substantial contrasts to the House approach, it could push lawmakers to send the matter into private conference committee negotiations, which may delay passage of a final bill for Gov. Charlie Baker to review.
Baker filed a Holyoke Soldiers' Home reform bill last session, in June 2020, urging "prompt enactment" in a letter to the Legislature. Lawmakers opted instead to convene their own special commission to review the outbreak and draft recommended reforms, and Baker's bill died at the end of session in January 2021 without a vote in either chamber.
Written by Chris Lisinski and Sam Doran/SHNS