The state House and Senate have come to a compromise on legislation to expand oversight of veteran care facilities in Massachusetts, just months following a recent settlement with the families of Holyoke Soldiers’ Home residents impacted by an outbreak of COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic.
The proposed bill elevates the Department of Veterans’ Services to a cabinet office and expands the responsibilities of department officials, according to a press release issued by the Legislature. The bill also calls for eligibility requirements for high-ranking Department of Veterans’ Services employees to have “military experience or experience working with veterans,” as well as additional nursing home administration experience. If passed, the bill would also create a Veterans’ Homes Council and Board of Trustees to oversee these homes.
Caroline Merritt, legislative director for Rep. Joseph Wagner, said the legislation will clarify roles and a chain of command for oversight of the homes.
"There is also an independent Office of the Veteran Advocate to ensure veterans throughout the commonwealth are receiving safe, effective and timely care," Merritt said.
More than 320 veterans lived at the Holyoke and Chelsea Soldiers’ Homes as ofNovember 2021.
This past May, the commonwealth reached a settlement with the families of veterans who died from or contracted COVID-19 while at Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. Tom Lesser, one of the attorneys who represented the families in that settlement, said he believes the oversight bill would improve conditions.
"The staff was trying very hard, but they were underpaid, and they were not getting support from the administration," he said. "I’m hopeful that that will change with this plan.”
State Sen. John Velis, whose district includes Holyoke, said in a press release that he supports the legislation — but he also recognizes "this work must continue" to protect veterans.
Senate President Karen Spilka said in a press release that the members of the Veterans’ Homes Conference Committee, which includes Velis and Wagner, “are mindful that issues and circumstances may arise that compel additional thought, reassessment, and legislative action and that work will continue.” Spilka went on to announce that she and Velis will form a working group to monitor implementation of the bill.
Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.