By: State Rep. Linda Dean Campbell
The Massachusetts Legislature unanimously sent to Governor Baker a final bill that will comprehensively reform Veteran care in our Commonwealth – which includes, but goes far beyond, major reforms to how our Soldiers’ Homes are governed and operated.
As lead sponsor of this legislation alongside Senator Mike Rush, a fellow Veteran, it was well documented that I voted “present” indicating serious concern when the bill first came before the Massachusetts House in February. I believed that the bill brought forth by House leadership was fundamentally different than the original bill Senator Rush and I filed. Our original bill was based on recommendations resulting from the legislative investigation we co-chaired – which were widely supported by Veterans groups, long-term care experts, and policymakers.
I was proud to support the final bill that is now before Governor Baker. It stays true to our original bill and addresses both the immediate and underlying causes that led to the tragic COVID-19 outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. Our Soldiers’ Homes must be governed with crystal clear accountability, responsibility, and authority – and with a clearly defined chain of command. That is what this legislation accomplishes.
Very importantly, this bill elevates the Secretary of Veterans’ Services to a true secretariat-level position with a direct line of communication to the Governor. This is great news for our entire Veteran community. Further, we outline a clear chain of command from the superintendent of each Soldiers’ Home to the Secretary of Veterans’ Services to the Governor.
The bill also requires the superintendent of each Soldiers’ Home to be a licensed nursing home administrator with experience – and establishes a robust evaluation process for hiring superintendents. The Secretary of Veterans’ Services will have the clear authority to hire and (if necessary) fire each superintendent. This is how we ensure qualified leadership at our Homes.
Further, the bill creates a Veterans’ Homes Council whose job is to provide recommendations regarding policies and needed improvements at the Homes – and its members will include diverse representatives of the Veteran community; experts in clinical care, labor relations, and business management; and local representation for each Home, with a mission to make recommendations for Veteran care across the Commonwealth.
The bill creates sound oversight mechanisms – including inspections and licensure by the Department of Public Health, certification by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and an ombudsperson to whom residents of the Homes, their families, and staff can confidentially submit concerns to seek a timely resolution.
Finally, the bill establishes a new independent Office of the Veteran Advocate – which will look out for the well-being of all Veterans in the Commonwealth and can publicly raise concerns or needed improvements related to Veteran care and services.
Governor Baker initially returned the final bill to the Legislature with a few additions – namely, to ensure the incoming Governor is the one to staff the Office of the Veteran Advocate and to ensure a smooth transition as the Department of Veterans’ Services becomes its own agency directly under the new Governor. These additions were received favorably by the Legislature.
We cannot legislate the character of a leader – but we can require transparency, excellent standards of care, and – most importantly – a clear chain of command, a clear line of communication, and accountability and responsibility at all levels of leadership at our Soldiers’ Homes. This bill requires – not asks for – these pillars of good governance. By elevating the Secretary of Veterans’ Services and creating an independent Office of the Veteran Advocate, care and services for all Veterans statewide will receive renewed attention. This is deep, necessary reform – and our Veterans and their families deserving nothing less.
Here is what local Veterans had to say about this news:
“I am confident this legislation is the right approach to hold the Commonwealth responsible for Veterans by establishing a concise chain of command, inspections, and accountability standards,” said Ralph Basiliere, Chairman of the Haverhill Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission, and former Director of Veterans’ Services for the City of Haverhill. “This is a good day for vulnerable Veterans in Massachusetts. The grief-stricken families can know their loved ones didn’t die in vain.”
“We are most grateful for the hard work and diligence by Representative Campbell and Senator Rush, and many others, in investigating the root causes of the tragic COVID-related deaths of 77 Veterans at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home and recommending actionable changes in accountability and transparency,” said Paul Jensen, a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, former Company Commander with the 82nd Airborne Division, and current Veterans’ Service Officer for the City of Methuen.
“It is especially impressive that they rejected the initial bill introduced after their report, choosing instead to stick to their guns and insist on reforms proposed in the original bill. This bill affects some of our most needy Veterans, and we owe them only the best in care and services and streamlining the chain of command and elevating the role of Secretary of Veterans’ Services to a true cabinet-level position will only serve to continue our long tradition of serving our Veterans here in the Commonwealth.”
“To me there are two most important aspects of this legislation: first, creating a position Secretary of Veterans’ Services, and secondly creating a statewide Veterans’ Homes Council comprised of Veteran advocates with expertise in various fields along with representation for a diverse population of Veterans from throughout the Commonwealth,” said Ed “Hoppy” Curran, Vietnam Veteran, former Veterans’ Service Officer for the City of Methuen, and current head of the Lawrence Vietnam Memorial Committee.
State Representative Linda Dean Campbell represents the cities of Methuen and Haverhill in the State Legislature. She serves as House Chair of the Joint Committee on Advanced IT, the Internet and Cybersecurity. She can be reached at Linda.Campbell@mahouse.gov or (617) 722-2676. ◊