State Senate Releases Veterans’ Homes Reform Bill Better Matching Rep. Dean Campbell’s Original

Rep. Linda Dean Campbell addresses the audience at the Haverhill Vietnam Veterans Memorial. (Mike Jarvis photograph for WHAV News.)

State senators will be asked to vote next week on a suite of oversight and management reforms at the state-run veterans’ homes in Chelsea and Holyoke that more closely align with the vision of special oversight committee co-chairs Rep. Linda Dean Campbell and Sen. Michael Rush.

As WHAV reported last month Dean Campbell withheld her full support on watered down legislation in the House because it fell short of her committee’s aims

“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.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee on Thursday favorably reported a new version of the legislation filed in September, scheduling it for debate on March 10.

Like a version that the House approved last month, the bill would require the top official at each soldiers’ home to be a licensed nursing home administrator, create ombudsman roles to oversee the homes and create a new statewide council to advise operations.

However, in accordance with Dean Campbell’s and Rush’s original plan, the legislation due for a vote in the Senate would elevate the secretary of veterans’ services to a Cabinet-level position, a change that the House stripped from the original proposal, according to a bill summary.

Backers say lifting that secretary out from underneath the Health and Human Services umbrella would establish a clearer chain of command—something that investigations found was not present while COVID-19 swept through the Holyoke facility—and give the office direct access to the governor.

Rush and Campbell’s bill was the end product of a legislative special committee that investigated the early-2020 coronavirus outbreak at the Holyoke facility, where at least 76 military veterans died of COVID-19.

The Senate bill also includes language designating seats on a newly proposed Veterans’ Homes Advisory Council for female, nonwhite and LGBTQ veterans and requiring some of the panel’s members to have specific qualifications and eligibility, such as professional knowledge in long-term health care or “experience treating post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans.”

Rush and Campbell wove similar standards for the panel into their bill, but the version that cleared the House appeared to strip out requirements for certain professional experience or guaranteed slots for underrepresented communities.

In a departure from both other versions of the bill, the Senate Ways and Means Committee proposal would assign responsibility for appointing and removing soldiers’ home superintendents and deputy superintendents to the executive director of veterans’ homes and housing.

Rush and Campbell proposed giving the governor authority to select and remove soldiers’ home superintendents and deputy superintendents based on consultation with other officials. The House bill would have required the statewide advisory council to make appointments after reviewing nominations submitted by each home’s board of trustees, and given the council authority to remove a superintendent following a recommendation by a trustee board or the governor.

If the Senate ultimately enacts a bill with substantial contrasts to the House approach, it could push lawmakers to send the matter into private conference committee negotiations, which may delay passage of a final bill for Gov. Charlie Baker to review.

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