State Representative Donald Wong has voted to support changes in the governing structure at the state-run Soldiers’ Homes in Holyoke and Chelsea to help improve oversight of the two facilities and ensure the delivery of quality services to the homes’ residents. On February 10, House Bill 4441, An Act relative to the governance, structure and care of veterans at the Commonwealth’s veterans’ homes, was passed (156-1) by the House of Representatives. On February 14, the Senate referred the bill to its committee on Ways and Means.
Wong said the bill implements a series of reforms in response to the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke that claimed the lives of 76 veterans. Those reforms include a restructuring of the boards of trustees at both soldiers’ homes, new professional qualification standards for the homes’ superintendents, regular inspections of the two facilities, the appointment of an independent Veteran Advocate and the establishment of a Veterans’ Homes Council and a new Office of Veterans’ Homes and Housing within the Department of Veterans’ Services.
Under House Bill 4441, the Department of Public Health will be required to conduct a minimum of two inspections per year at both the Chelsea and Holyoke facilities. The bill also mandates an annual review of both homes’ health record systems to ensure they are equipped with technology that allows for easy access to records for veterans and their families.
Wong said the bill will help to empower veterans and their families by requiring the Office of Veterans’ Homes and Housing to employ an ombudsman at each veterans’ home. In addition, it establishes strong whistleblower protections to prevent retaliation against individuals who submit complaints to the ombudsman or who cooperate in any investigation initiated after a complaint is filed.
House Bill 4441 also creates a Veteran Advocate to be appointed by a majority vote of the attorney general, state auditor and governor. Representative Wong noted that the Veteran Advocate will serve independently of any state agency and will advocate on behalf of the state’s veterans, including those residing in its Soldiers’ Homes, to ensure they receive timely, safe and effective services.
Under the House proposal, the executive director of the Office of Veteran’s Homes and Housing will be appointed by the Secretary of Veterans’ Services and will advise the secretary on matters relative to veterans’ housing. The executive director must have at least five years of experience in health care management as well as military or other experience working with veterans. The executive director will also chair the newly created Veterans’ Homes Council, which will be responsible for managing the state’s veterans’ homes. The Massachusetts Adjutant General and members of the Soldiers’ Homes of Chelsea and Holyoke boards of trustees are among those who will serve on the 17-member Council.
According to Wong, the bill requires the superintendents of both soldiers’ homes to be licensed as a nursing home administrator and to be either a veteran or have prior experience with the management of veterans in a nursing home or long-term care setting. Both superintendents will report to the executive director of the Office of Veterans’ Homes and Housing and will be appointed by the Veterans’ Homes Council based on recommendations submitted by the boards of trustees of their respective homes.
House Bill 4441 also reduces the size of the boards of trustees of the Soldiers’ Homes of Chelsea and Holyoke from seven to five members, while setting additional requirements for who can serve on these boards. In Chelsea, at least three of the board members will be required to be war veterans, Gold Star Mothers and/or Gold Star Family Members, family members of active or former residents or family members of Disabled American Veterans. In Holyoke, the trustees must include at least one resident each of Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire Counties, and at least three of them must meet the same background requirements as the Soldiers’ Home of Chelsea’s trustees.