Governor Maura Healey on Friday named state Representative Dr. Jon Santiago as the next secretary of Veterans’ Services, a role that includes oversight of the state’s troubled soldiers’ homes and that will soon be elevated to a Cabinet position.
Santiago, 40, is a major in the US Army Reserve and an emergency room doctor at Boston Medical Center, where he worked long hours during the height of the COVID pandemic, even as he unsuccessfully campaigned for mayor of Boston and continued working at the State House as a legislator.
A former supervisor, Dr. Thea James, a physician and executive at the hospital, described Santiago as indefatigable.
“He was working shifts all day,” James said Friday, “and then walking into the community at night knocking on doors.”
Santiago will take over Veterans’ Services on March 1, the day it becomes a full-fledged executive office, with the same status as other cabinet-level agencies, such as Education or Health and Human Services. That change stems from a 2022 law, slated to go into effect next month, that elevates the secretary of Veterans’ Services to a member of the cabinet reporting directly to the governor, rather than to the secretary of Health and Human Services.
He will replace Cheryl Lussier Poppe, an appointee of former Governor Charlie Baker, who has faced questions in recent weeks following a letter published by the state’s Inspector General describing leadership failures and terrible living conditions at the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home. Poppe will continue to serve as Secretary of Veterans’ Services until March 1, a spokesperson for Healey said.)
The 2022 law was a response to a deadly COVID outbreak that killed at least 76 veterans at the state’s other soldiers’ home, in Holyoke, during the early months of the pandemic. Healey, then serving as attorney general, brought criminal charges against the home’s superintendent and medical director.
A 2021 Spotlight report showed how the politically connected former superintendent in Holyoke, Bennett Walsh, got the job even though he wasn’t qualified and kept it despite grave concerns about his leadership. After a lengthy investigation into the home’s leadership, the state’s official watchdog, then-Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha, endorsed the Legislature’s proposal to elevate the department to an executive office, saying that the move would “create a clearer chain of command.”
The state’s soldiers’ homes provide shelter and medical care for veterans, many of whom are in poor health or have been homeless.
“Our veterans deserve the absolute highest quality of care,” Santiago said in a statement, “but they are far too often underserved.”
Born in Puerto Rico, Santiago moved to Boston with his family as a child. He was raised in Roxbury, in subsidized housing, according to his website, and studied at the University of Texas at Austin and Yale Medical School. He also spent several stints abroad — in the Dominican Republic with the Peace Corps, in France on a Fulbright Fellowship, and for overseas deployments with the Army.
Santiago also holds a master of public health degree from the University of Washington at Seattle. In his election campaigns, he has focused on opioid addiction, a scourge that has heavily impacted homeless or otherwise at-risk military veterans.
In 2018, Santiago upset long-time representative Byron Rushing in a Democratic primary before winning the general election to represent a district that includes the South End. For the past four years in the state House of Representatives, he has focused on health care issues, including sponsoring a bill to provide funding for nursing homes to hire infection preventionists.
In 2021, he ran for mayor of Boston but dropped out after his campaign failed to gain momentum. Santiago’s appointment is expected to prompt a special election to fill his seat in the House.
Santiago’s selection comes after some Latino leaders and advocacy groups pushed Healey to place more people of Latino descent in senior roles. On Friday, Unidos in Power — a group of Latino business, health care, and nonprofit leaders — praised Healey, saying in a statement that “as a Latino leader, [Santiago] will provide a strong voice for our community.”
Healey’s replacement of Poppe, a former colonel in the Massachusetts National Guard, with Santiago comes as new questions are raised about the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home.
On Jan. 3, in the final days of the Baker administration, the state’s current Inspector General, Jeffrey Shapiro, published a scathing letter about the home. Using terms that seemed to echo the Holyoke scandal, he described a “catastrophic failure” of leadership, filthy conditions for residents, and apparent overtime irregularities.
Eight days later, the Globe published a report describing substantial overtime payments to a top executive at the home, who was known as an ally of the home’s then-superintendent, Eric Johnson. Healey fired Johnson the following day, Jan. 12.
Last year, Johnson was suspended for four months pending multiple investigations about conditions at the home and various allegations against him. But in October, Poppe returned Johnson to his leadership role over the strenuous objections of unions representing employees at the home.
As part of his oversight of the soldiers’ homes, Santiago will work with a new Veterans’ Homes Council, which was created by the 2022 legislation. Last week, Healey and acting Health and Human Services Secretary Mary Beckman announced the appointment of the council’s first members, including military veterans, a union president, and health care executives. (Kate Walsh, the CEO of Boston Medical Center Health System, is scheduled to take over as the permanent health secretary on March 1.)
In addition to overseeing the two soldiers’ homes, the Department of Veterans’ Services manages aid programs for military veterans and their dependents living in Massachusetts. Santiago will also oversee a new initiative, stemming from the 2022 legislation, to build smaller soldiers’ homes throughout the state, which will help improve “regional equity” for the state’s veterans, said Coleman Nee, a former secretary of the Department of Veterans’ Services.
Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Mike Damiano can be reached at email@example.com.