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State lawmakers compromise on oversight of veterans homes

House and Senate lawmakers agreed Wednesday on a bill that would overhaul oversight, management requirements and crisis response at state-run long-term care facilities for veterans, two years after a COVID-19 outbreak led to the deaths of dozens of veterans at two state-run Soldiers' Homes.

A conference committee tasked with resolving differences in each branch's reform bill filed a report Wednesday afternoon, setting up floor votes on a measure that caps off nearly four months of private negotiations and close to a year of legislative investigation.

The final bill would impose new governance structures for the Holyoke and Chelsea Soldiers' Homes, elevate the secretary of veterans' services to a Cabinet-level position, create new licensing requirements for the facilities and their top leaders, and stand up a statewide advisory council and local panels for each home.

"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," House Speaker Ron Mariano, Senate President Karen Spilka, and lead conferees Rep. Joseph Wagner and Sen. Michael Rush said in the statement.

The statewide Massachusetts Veterans' Homes Advisory Council would focus on the unique needs of the Holyoke and Chelsea facilities and the veterans they serve as well as local boards of trustees. It would also launch an Office of Veterans' Homes and Housing within the executive branch, which would be tasked with overseeing veteran housing matters and hiring full-time ombudspeople to receive and investigate resident and staff complaints in each facility.

The bill pulls the Department of Veterans' Services out from under the umbrella of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services and makes DVS its own Cabinet-level executive office.

Supporters say that move will give the secretary of veterans' services more bandwidth to respond to needs at soldiers' homes and a direct line of communication and accountability to the governor.

The secretary would also have final say on both hiring and firing superintendents to lead each soldiers' home, though the local and statewide boards could have input on candidate nominations.

State-operated veterans' homes would need to employ both a superintendent, who would report to the secretary of veterans' services, and a deputy superintendent, who would report to the superintendent. The facility's top official would need to be a licensed nursing home administrator — a qualification the head of the Holyoke facility allegedly lacked during the outbreak.

Other sections of the bill would require each soldiers' home to be licensed as a long-term care facility, and the Department of Public Health would be required to conduct inspections at least twice every year and every 30 days during emergencies, under the compromise legislation.

A deadly COVID-19 outbreak hit the Holyoke Soldiers' Home in March 2020, early in the days of the pandemic. Officials at the home, led by then-superintendent Bennett Walsh, reportedly made a string of what one investigator called "utterly baffling" decisions that failed to rein in the deadly virus, and the Baker administration fell short in its oversight of the facility leading up to and during the crisis.

At least 78 veterans died at the Holyoke facility, and another 31 died at the Chelsea Soldiers' Home from COVID-19, Sen. Michael Rodrigues said in March while his chamber debated its version of the reform bill.

Legislative leaders did not say in their joint statement when they plan to take up the accord, but both branches could vote to accept it as early as Thursday.

"We look forward to taking this legislation up shortly to get it on the Governor's desk soon," Mariano, Spilka, Rush and Wagner said.

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