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Mass. lawmakers hold hearing on bills to improve oversight of Holyoke Soldiers' Home

Beacon Hill lawmakers heard testimony today on a pair of bills that would streamline the chain of command at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, Massachusetts. At least 76 veterans there died last year during a COVID-19 outbreak.

The proposal follows a report released in May by an oversight committee on the COVID-19 outbreak at the facility.

It found that unnecessary steps in the chain of command hindered the response of the Baker administration as the crisis unfolded.

State Rep. David DeCoste of Norwell spoke in favor of the legislation, which would also elevate the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to a cabinet-level position.

"It will significantly mitigate the likelihood of a tragedy happening again at this home," he said. "I should point out the secretary will have the governor's ear at every cabinet meeting."

The bills would also require that the superintendent be a licensed nursing home administrator.

State Rep. Ruth Balser of Newton said she strongly supports that provision.

"The qualifications of the leadership is so important," she said. "The people to whom we had entrusted this most sacred responsibility were incompetent, and that's something we can fix through statute."

The legislation would get rid of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home's board of trustees, and create a statewide advisory board that would also weigh in on decisions at the soldiers' home in Chelsea.

Sean Collins, a trustee at the Holyoke facility, said the trustees should remain in place.

"My major concern with the proposed legislation is as a citizen of western Massachusetts, a veteran, I believe that the local representation and involvement will be key as we move into the future with a new modern facility," he said.

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