Message to Beacon Hill: Stop squabbling over how to reform the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, site of one of the coronavirus pandemic’s worst tragedies, and make meaningful reform happen. The best way to accomplish that is to adopt oversight legislation passed earlier this month in the Senate.
In March 2020 — two years ago — an outbreak of COVID-19 struck the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home with devastating consequences. By the time it was over, at least 77 veterans had died of the virus. The findings of one investigation done at the behest of Governor Charlie Baker, and another one conducted by a special joint legislative oversight committee, boil down to this: A politically connected superintendent who was not qualified to lead a long-term care facility was put in charge of it. That superintendent should have been fired for previous management missteps but was not. When COVID-19 hit the facility, bad medical decisions were made under the leadership of that superintendent, and by the time the Baker administration stepped in, it was too late for too many veterans who lived there. A muddled chain of command contributed to ongoing management problems at the facility and also contributed to the horrific death count from COVID-19.
Two years later, the Legislature still has done nothing to upgrade professional requirements for the superintendent’s job, or to address the deep structural chain-of-command problems between the facility and Beacon Hill. That means tragedy could strike again. As evidence of that possibility, a top official who was chosen to oversee the facility after the catastrophic COVID outbreak recently told the Globe he was terminated after raising concerns that dangerous disease prevention practices persisted even after those deaths in 2020.
Why has nothing happened? Because there are competing visions for what reform should look like. And, as usual on Beacon Hill, those competing visions involve power and control — including, in this case, who should have the power to fire and hire the superintendent. The Senate bill builds on recommendations made by the special legislative committee that investigated the COVID-19 outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home. That’s the right template for change. However, it runs up against a bill passed by the House, that sets up a governance structure so convoluted that the state inspector general, Glenn Cunha, warned in a letter that it “creates a risk of gaps in reporting and knowledge, and increases the likelihood of poor oversight and management.”
In fact, the governance structure set up in the House bill is so weak and confusing that state Representative Linda Dean Campbell — the bill’s original sponsor — voted “present” rather than support it. “At this juncture, I generally support the Senate bill because I feel it clearly outlines the chain of command, and it also sets up a council that is advisory in nature and presents a statewide perspective. This is also what the Inspector General recommended,” Campbell, a military veteran who cochaired the special legislative committee that investigated the COVID-19 deaths in Holyoke, told the Globe editorial board via e-mail.
Both the House and Senate bills would require the superintendent of the Soldiers’ Homes in Holyoke and Chelsea to be a licensed nursing home administrator. That’s the easy part. It’s the hiring and firing part that’s creating disagreement.
In the Senate bill, authority to appoint and, if necessary, remove the superintendent would be given to the secretary of veterans’ services. Currently, the secretary of veterans’ services falls under the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. The Senate bill elevates the position to Cabinet level. The Senate bill also sets up a new statewide council that would be strictly advisory in nature, with authority to make policy recommendations to the secretary of veterans’ services. This statewide council would reflect the needs of veterans across the Commonwealth and include representation of women veterans, minority veterans, LGBTQ veterans, and others. The Senate bill would also set up a regional council with advisory authority for each veterans home.
Under the House bill, the facility’s superintendent would report to the Office of Veterans’ Homes and Housing. But the House bill also creates a new statewide council that would have authority to hire and fire the superintendent, based on recommendations from local boards of trustees, and those local boards would hold the majority of seats on the statewide council. Under the House bill, the role of the secretary of veterans’ services, who would remain under the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, is unclear.
Cunha’s letter says that neither a regional council nor board of trustees should be involved in “hiring, supervision, evaluation, or removal decisions for superintendents,” and warns that such a governance structure adds confusion about who is accountable for overseeing the superintendent. That was the problem during the COVID-19 crisis in Holyoke.
Establish professional standards for the superintendent. Clarify the chain of command from the veterans’ facility to Beacon Hill. Consolidate authority to hire and fire a superintendent in a Cabinet-level position, with direct report to the governor.
That is key to reform. Anything that stands in the way of those simple goals disrespects the veterans who died of COVID-19 in Holyoke.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.