Rep. Dean Campbell Withholds Full Support for Weakened Veterans’ Homes Reform Bill

Rep. Linda Dean Campbell. (Courtesy photograph.)

Although she was the original lead sponsor of a bill to reform oversight and governance at state veterans’ homes, Rep. Linda Dean Campbell did not lend her full support to a weakened version that emerged from the House last Thursday.

The bill that cleared the House with a 156-1 vote seeks several major changes at the Holyoke and Chelsea Soldiers’ Homes after a deadly COVID-19 outbreak swept through Holyoke nearly two years ago, leading to the deaths of dozens of veterans and spawning multiple independent investigations. Rep. Linda Dean Campbell voted “present” on the bill that was reshaped since she and Sen. Mike Rush filed it last fall.

“This is a very different bill than the one that was filed by Sen. Rush and I resulting from the input we received during the special investigation,” Dean Campbell, a Methuen Democrat, said.

Its reforms include a new requirement that the top official at each facility hold a license as a nursing home administrator, the launch of a new statewide veteran advocate office and creation of ombudsman roles to oversee operations in Holyoke and Chelsea.

Lawmakers made multiple references to the March 2020 tragedy in the Holyoke facility, in which a failure to mitigate a COVID-19 outbreak resulted in the deaths of at least 76 veteran residents. Several independent investigations later attributed the crisis to mismanagement, a muddied chain of command and governing shortfalls.

Democrat Rep. Christopher Markey of Dartmouth, who filed several unsuccessful amendments that would have reintroduced sections of Dean Campbell’s version stripped from the leadership-backed bill, cast the lone dissenting vote.

The version that Dean Campbell and Rush filed would have elevated the secretary of veterans’ services to a full Cabinet-level position, up from its current home under the umbrella of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. That shift, supporters say, would help define a clear chain of command and give the veterans’ services secretary direct access to the governor to allow for more immediate response in cases of emergencies.

“We felt that needed to be clear, because we felt that in our hearings, in our investigation, a muddled chain of command was a large part of why the crisis (in Holyoke) unfolded the way it did,” Dean Campbell said. “A clear chain of command, we feel, is absolutely essential moving forward.”

Dean Campbell’s bill also would have given the governor authority to appoint or remove a facility’s superintendent and deputy superintendent based on consultation with other officials. Hiring and firing power emerged as a key point of tension in Holyoke because of concerns about former Superintendent Bennett Walsh’s qualifications.

The House-approved bill, however, calls for a statewide Veterans’ Homes Council to appoint superintendents after reviewing nominations submitted by each home’s board of trustees, according to a summary. The council would then have authority to remove a superintendent on the recommendation of the governor or a facility’s board of trustees.

With those changes in place, Dean Campbell said she is no longer sure what the chain of command for veterans’ homes will be under the revised bill.

Dean Campbell and Rush proposed creating a 12-member Veterans’ Homes Advisory Council, all of whom would be appointed by the governor. Their bill outlined several requirements for who could serve on the panel, designating seats for individuals with experience in long-term care, nursing, clinical services, and labor relations as well as seats for female, nonwhite and LGBTQ veterans.

The updated House bill creates a 17-member Veterans’ Homes Council. Seven members would be appointed, and each home’s five-member board would serve on the larger council.

The legislation does not appear to set any requirements that members have specific professional experience or come from underrepresented communities.

Legislative leaders have not spoken in detail about why they opted to rewrite certain sections of the original Dean Campbell and Rush bill, the Senate version of which remains pending before that chamber’s Ways and Means Committee. Senate President Karen Spilka said her branch plans to take up the bill after the House.

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