State legislators unveiled a new bill Thursday that aims to address the pitfalls in leadership and oversight of state-run veterans’ homes, more than a year after 76 elderly veterans died in a COVID-19 outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke.
The bill, filed by Representative Linda Dean Campbell of Methuen and Senator Mike Rush of Boston, calls for several changes to the structure and governance of the soldiers’ homes, including the creation of a statewide advisory council and elevating the secretary of veterans affairs to a cabinet-level position.
Other changes include creating an ombudsperson role and emergency hotline for residents, their families, and staff to report concerns and time-sensitive issues more easily, and mandating that each home be certified by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
In addition to Holyoke, the state also runs a Soldiers’ Home in Chelsea.
The bill also calls for the Department of Public Health to conduct inspections of the state’s two veterans’ homes at least twice a year. The legislation would also remove the authority of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home board of trustees to appoint a superintendent and transfer that power to the governor.
A statement issued by the offices of Campbell and Rush, who chaired the former Special Joint Oversight Committee on the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, said the changes outlined in the bill are based on the committee’s report on the issues at the soldiers’ home, issues which they said “created a perfect storm for the tragic and preventable” outbreak at the home in the spring of 2020.
“Collectively, these provisions will reform and replace a deficient system of governance for our Soldiers’ Homes and ensure that the homes are operated in a consistent and transparent manner by qualified leadership with adequate oversight,” the Democratic legislators said in a statement. “Our Veterans and their families deserve no less.”
The new legislation would require each superintendent to be a licensed nursing home administrator and mandates annual performance reviews for all leadership positions at each home.
The bill also calls for each home to have a full-time specialist in infection control and emergency preparedness.
In a nod to the extreme emotional toll the pandemic had on Holyoke employees, the bill also seeks to ensure that those “who worked during the outbreak are entitled to appropriate mental health resources.”
The proposed legislation comes a few months after a Globe Spotlight report revealed the breakdown in leadership that allowed the outbreak in Holyoke to spin out of control and ultimately cost lives.
Among the issues highlighted by the Globe was the failure by Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders to act on her knowledge that the Holyoke home’s then-superintendent Bennett Walsh was unfit for his job, as he had no previous experience in health care.
Walsh and the home’s former medical director, David Clinton, are facing charges of criminal neglect in a case brought by state Attorney General Maura Healey.
Sudders this week was named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed by lawyers representing veterans who died of COVID-19 at the Holyoke home.