Massachusetts legislative leaders reached a deal Wednesday on legislation that would reshape oversight of the state’s two soldiers’ homes, promising change more than two years after dozens of veterans died at the Holyoke facility in one of the most notorious and deadly COVID-19 outbreaks in the country.
The compromise bill between the House and Senate elevates the Department of Veterans Services to a cabinet-level executive office that reports directly to the governor and gives the department the ability to hire and fire superintendents at the homes in Holyoke and Chelsea. It also creates a statewide advisory council, an independent ombudsman, and requires that the Department of Public Health inspect each state-operated veterans’ home at least twice a year and every 30 days during emergencies.
“One of the main lessons we learned was to streamline and make the chain of command more efficient,” negotiator Senator John C. Velis said. “It really goes without saying that the more layers of a chain of command you have, the more problematic and more likely something could go astray.”
The bill also requires that veterans’ homes to be licensed long-term care facilities.
Republican Governor Charlie Baker’s administration had faced intense criticism for putting a politically connected appointee with no health care experience in charge of the Holyoke veterans facility. Multiple investigations have concluded that “toxic leadership” at the facility led to fatal errors such as combining sick and healthy patients in the same unit, speeding COVID’s spread.
Baker also reversed himself after initially saying he never met former Holyoke superintendent Bennett Walsh before swearing him in, saying he “forgot” that he had interviewed him for a half-hour before he appointed Walsh to lead the facility.
Baker agreed in May for the state to pay $56 million to the families of veterans who contracted COVID-19 at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, with families of 84 veterans who died from COVID each receiving at least hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Under the compromise bill released Wednesday, an office of veterans’ homes and housing will be created under the department of veterans’ services. Its executive director must have at least five years of experience in health care management, and military experience or other experience working with veterans.
Attorney General Maura Healey sought criminal charges against both Walsh and ex-medical director Dr. David Clinton in September 2020, accusing them of putting elderly veterans at risk of contracting COVID. A Superior Court judge later dismissed the case, though Healey has since appealed.
The chambers’ versions included significant differences. The Senate bill sought to elevate the state’s secretary of veterans’ services — who currently falls under the Health and Human Services — to a cabinet position, creating a more direct line to the governor, a provision that ultimately prevailed.
Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha, whose office conducted its own probe of the Holyoke home’s leadership, urged lawmakers in a March letter to eliminate the each of the homes’ boards of trustees, or limit them to an advisory capacity, arguing that they have “the potential to create confusion and misunderstandings about the chain of command.”
The compromise legislation now goes to the House for a vote, which is expected before the end of the formal legislative session on Sunday. The bill will then go to the Senate and, eventually, to Baker’s desk.
“Nothing can alleviate the pain of the families who lost loved ones to COVID-19 at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, but we can ensure that we act to prevent a similar tragedy in the future,” Senate President Karen E. Spilka, House Speaker Ronald Mariano, Senator Michael F. Rush, and Representative Joseph F. Wagner, all Democrats, said in a statement.
While the new oversight measures are a welcome change, some families and soldier’s home employees say the quality of care and resident safety will only improve with a commitment to higher pay and better working conditions.
The bill should have included language that put more labor voices on an oversight committee, said Cory Bombredi, a union representative for SEIU Local 888, which represents many of the home’s staff.
A 10-member statewide advisory council created in the bill does require that one member appointed by the governor “have experience in labor relations,” according to the bill language.
Bombredi said having a labor voice on the panel “is a good start,” but it depends who the next governor appoints.
“At this point, we will take what we can get and we will keep fighting for more,” he said. “We were the ones that unfortunately had to sound the alarm, because all the employees of the Commonwealth were too busy trying to cover it up. The workers and the veterans deserve a place to work and live with honor and dignity . . . it’s going to take the Governor to fix it.”
One piece advocates are grateful for is a Senate working group that Spilka announced Wednesday, which will be tasked with reviewing the bill’s implementation.
“Quite frankly, if the reforms put forth today were it, I would say that this is hollow oversight legislation because it would still give the reins of the soldiers’ homes to the executive branch and we would be in no better position than when we started,” said John Paradis, a former deputy superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home who cofounded a group of concerned family members and veterans. “The working group is very important. This is the beginning, not the end, to a continuous process.”
Each home will also have a five-member board of trustees, three of whom will be war veterans or families.
Laurie Beaudette, whose 83-year-old father, Jim Mandeville, died from COVID-19 two days after Easter 2020, said she is “grateful that there will be more oversight.”
“But I don’t see the quality of the care changing until they address staffing issues up there,” she said.
Kwesi Ablordeppey, a certified nursing assistant at Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, filed a federal lawsuit last year on behalf of dozens of workers, alleging they faced “inhumane conditions” as the virus swept through the state-run facility in 2020.
“It’s a staffing issue and management issue,” said Ablordeppey. “They don’t come to the facility and ask, “what is the thing we need to be included in the legislation to fix the problem?’”
Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized when the House may vote on a Soldiers’ Home reform bill. The vote is expected by Sunday.