On Thursday, March 3, 2022, the Massachusetts State Senate unveiled legislation to increase public oversight over the administration of state-operated veterans’ homes in Holyoke and Chelsea. To improve safety and transparency at the veterans’ homes, the bill would restructure the chain of command to more closely match established administrative practices used in hospitals and other large organizations. This legislation follows continued scrutiny of administrative failures at the veterans’ home in Holyoke, which led to the tragic deaths of 77 veterans during the early days of the pandemic, and builds on recommendations made by the Special Joint Oversight Committee on the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke COVID-19 Outbreak, which investigated.
“I find it difficult to adequately express my feelings about the tragic events that took place at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke during the COVID-19 outbreak,” said Senator Michael Moore, “This bill is a critical step towards ensuring proper oversight and accountability over those that care for Veterans here in the Commonwealth.”
“This bill will help make sure the tragedy that occurred at Holyoke Soldiers’ Home never happens again by prioritizing accountability and oversight and establishing clear chains of command at our state’s long-term care facilities for veterans,” said State Senator Michael J. Rodrigues (D-Westport), Chair of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. “Thank you to the Senate President for her leadership and to Senator Rush and the Veterans Committee for their work in shaping this bill and their tireless commitment to supporting veterans. I look forward to a robust debate in the Senate.”
“The Soldiers’ Homes have long suffered from gaps in accountability and a confused chain of command, factors which left it unable to deal with a crisis like the one we saw with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Senator Michael F. Rush (D-Boston), Senate Vice Chair of the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs and sponsor of the bill. “The language the Senate will take up tightens these gaps, enhances the level of oversight by elevating the Secretary of Veterans’ Services to a cabinet level position, and creates a stronger governing structure that supports our veterans and provides high quality care. Thank you to Senate President Spilka, Chairman Rodrigues, and my colleagues in the Senate for your continued support of the commonwealth’s veterans.”
This comprehensive reform bill is designed to increase the safety of residents of veterans’ homes in the Commonwealth. A new, full-time ombudsperson would receive, investigate, and assist in resolving complaints related to the health, wellbeing, and rights of veterans’ homes’ residents and staff. To effectively aid these efforts, a public hotline would be created for residents and staff to direct concerns. The bill would also task the Department of Public Health with regularly inspecting the homes, with all inspection reports would being made publicly available.
State-operated veterans’ homes in Massachusetts are managed by a superintendent, who is responsible for everyday operation of the homes and for ensuring improvements to quality of care. The Senate’s legislation would give the authority to appoint a superintendent for each of the Veterans’ Homes to the Executive Director of the Office of Veterans’ Homes and Housing (OVHH). Under the legislation, superintendents would be required to fulfill certain criteria, including being a licensed nursing home administrator with experience running a long-term care facility. Priority would also be given to superintendent candidates who are themselves veterans.
The Executive Director of OVHH would be appointed by the Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans Services, which would be elevated to a cabinet-level position, appointed by the governor. The Secretary would be required to promulgate regulations concerning the operations and administration of veterans’ homes. Elevating the Secretary to a cabinet-level position would facilitate more timely attention to all personnel challenges.
In addition to altering the command structure responsible for managing veterans’ homes, the bill would also create a statewide Massachusetts Veterans’ Homes Advisory Council, tasked with recommending policies to the Secretary of Veterans Services, as well as Regional Councils, which would be tasked with representing the interests of the local community, residents, and family members at each veterans’ home. Both the statewide Massachusetts Veterans’ Homes Advisory Council and Regional Councils would report annually to the Secretary and to the Legislature. Together with the Secretary of Health and Human Services, these councils would be empowered to submit nominations for and recommend the removal of superintendents.
Furthermore, the bill would require each home to have a full-time specialist in infection control and emergency preparedness and to adhere to medically-sound guidelines for trauma-informed care. Additionally, the homes would be required to maintain organizational plans, updated annually, for normal operations as well as emergency operations.
This legislation would set procedures and guidelines for filling vacant positions at veterans’ homes, including posting job openings in a timely fashion and ensuring that an employee is available to temporarily be tasked with any unfulfilled emergency duties while the position is vacant. Additionally, annual performance reviews would be mandated for all leadership positions at each home.
To facilitate veterans’ access to health care, state-operated veterans’ homes would be required to accept Medicare and Medicaid payments. The bill would also provide mental health resources to employees of state-operated veterans’ homes who worked during the pandemic and create a commission to rename the Veterans’ Homes in Chelsea and Holyoke after specific Massachusetts veterans,
Amendments to An Act relative to the governance, structure and care of veterans at the commonwealth’s veterans’ homes will be due on Monday, March 7, 2022, and the bill will be debated by the Senate next week.