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Holyoke’s Next Rep Will Have to Carry on Soldiers’ Home Reforms…

Holyoke Soldiers' Home

Can you go Home again? (WMP&I)

HOLYOKE—Whether intentionally or not, political power and attention here follows the city’s geology. Rising from the Flats—a term unrelated to terrain—to the foot of Mount Tom is Cherry Hill, where the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home stands. Despite its perch overlooking everything but the mountains, the wave of death the novel coronavirus brought there showcases the failure to properly tend to the facility and its residents.

Although a regional facility that the commonwealth operates, the state rep for Holyoke seems fated to take a large role in the facility’s future. The incumbent, Aaron Vega, is retiring. That means this mandate will fall to his successor in the 5th Hampden district. One of three candidates running for the Democratic nomination will take a lead role in how to reform and rebuild one of the region’s most revered assets.

“It’s not just about funding, it’s about oversight,” Vega said. “You’re going to be looking at a very complex medical reimbursement” situation.

Seventy-six veterans died from an outbreak of COVID-19 at the Home. The circumstances that led to the catastrophe have their roots in other decisions and structures that the legislature will have to resolve. Because the facility is in Holyoke and is a source of local pride, the city’s rep has a major role to play.

Rep Aaron Vega

Rep Aaron Vega in October (WMP&I)

Vega announced his retirement some weeks before the shroud of the coronavirus fell over the world. City Councilor David Bartley, Pioneer Valley Planning Commission staffer Patrick Beaudry and Patricia Duffy, Vega’s aide—whom he has endorsed—all entered the race before the virus burned through the Home. Now it could define the first term of whomever wins the September 1 Democratic primary.

The district consists of all of Holyoke. No Republicans have filed for this arch-Democratic seat.

The issue was front and center in a online forum the Holyoke Taxpayers Association and the Holyoke Chamber of Commerce held this week. The three candidates insisted the investigations should follow the evidence even into the governor’s office.

So far, accountability has stopped well short of there.

After learning of the crisis in late March, Governor Charlie Baker removed superintendent Bennett Walsh. Baker commissioned Attorney Mark Pearlstein to investigate. His report painted a damning—albeit disputed—portrait of the home and Veterans Services Secretary Francisco Urena’s supervision. While Walsh has fought his termination in court, Urena resigned.

Few believe the problem stops there. The exact nature of Walsh’s appointment remains bizarrely murky and questions about the administration’s funding decisions and parity with the Chelsea Soldiers Home haunt Baker.

In interviews with WMP&I, the candidates were eager see changes, especially the long-planned renovation Baker put on the back burner when he took office in 2015. Chelsea’s renovation advanced, however.

“We heard [Tuesday] that Boston is looking into fixing the problems,” Bartley said in an email. Alluding to the renovation, he continued, “Let’s see what is developed but I’m not holding my breath.”

If elected, Beaudry expects he would take a role in the probes. Though, his attention, was on the renovations.

“I feel strongly that I don’t need to see an investigation to know that I want to see the major renovations that were previously proposed,” he said last week in an interview.

Duffy explained the legislative probe will play a key role in sculpting the facility’s future. Its processes are just beginning.

“There’s going to be Community outreach,” she said of the committee’s work last week. “They’re just starting to say, ‘Make sure you come talk to the legislative committee.’”

5th Hampden Forum 2020

Holyoke Taxpayers Association Prez Helene Florio & Holyoke Chamber Exec Director Andrea Marion grill candidates Patricia Duffy, David Bartley, & Pat Beaudry on Tuesday. (via Boxcast)

Only Pearlstein’s investigation has concluded. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, US Attorney Andrew Lelling, and Inspector General Glenn Cunha have launched inquiries, too.

The Special Joint Oversight Committee, chaired by Methuen Rep Linda Campbell and Milton Senator Walter Timilty, will investigate and formulate legislative responses. Although the chairs are easterners, many western reps are on the panel.

Westfield Senator John Velis—who also represents Holyoke—and West Springfield Senator James Welch are on it. On the House side are Reps Mindy Domb of Amherst, Michael Finn of West Springfield, Joseph Wagner of Chicopee. Vega is the fourth local committee member.

In a phone interview Thursday, Vega doubted the committee would finish its work before his term ends in January. He would consider serving beyond then in an ex officio capacity or handing-off his slot to his successor. The panel has a March 31 deadline to issue a report.

Whatever happens, the exact changes could be widespread and details daunting. Following Pearlstein’s report, Baker proposed changes, which would appear to consolidate the governor’s power over the Home. That seems unlikely. Yet, Baker is moving forward on the stalled renovation.

Some of the Guv’s ideas will face the bin, but the renovation is welcome. (via YouTube/Mass Governor’s office)

“I’m glad to see he’s stepping up for that,” Vega said. The project is the first of three things the next rep must focus on at the home.

The other two have an oversight element. The second is what the structure of leadership is. There is growing pressure to move the Holyoke Home out from under the Department of Veterans Services (DVS) and into the Department of Public Health’s ambit. The final area is overseeing the budget itself.

Which agency manages the Soldiers’ Home affects reimbursements. Vega said the home fell under DVS because of payment schedules from state health programs. However, unlike the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home, a dormitory-type setting, Holyoke is essentially a nursing home. It should be financed as such.

Vega said Northampton Senator Jo Comerford had been working on this reimbursement problem as has Velis.

Also key is ensuring the administration fills the DVS medical position. The legislature created the position when it voted to renovate the Chelsea facility.

Though not apparent amid the pandemic, there has been finger-pointing beyond Baker’s legal war with Walsh. Some of this manifested during heated moments of Wednesday’s candidate’s forum as Bartley hurled barbs at Vega and by extension Duffy.

Without identifying the charge’s source, Vega said it was a lie that reps, including himself, had not supported the budget.

“We always supported the superintendent’s request,” Vega said.

However, circumstances changed when Walsh took over for his predecessor Paul Barabani. Both Vega and Duffy, who once worked for the Home’s unions, said that it was not uncommon for Barabani to seek more funds. If either the governor’s budget or the legislature’s came up short, he worked with legislators to fill the gaps. Walsh never raised such concerns about his budget, Vega said.

Without the superintendent’s advocacy, Vega said, legislators can only look to families of residents or the unions. Though, their input comes with context, too.

Lots to oversee in Holyoke from here. (WMassP&I)

Legislators will scrutinize the budget proposals more carefully, but the next rep will need support or a platform to push for funds beyond the request.

Beaudry, who worked for Vega’s predecessor Michael Kane, recalled several battles to keep funding in place despite the Great Recession.

“That’s what the Holyoke rep does,” he said. “They need to keep their eye on the ball and make sure that [staff] have what they need out there.”

As with many things, the coronavirus has laid bare underlying problems. Some crisis at the home was inevitable. The international attention the tragedy attracted could draw the Home deeper into Holyoke’s notoriously fraught politics. While Vega argued that the mayor and councilors have a role, the home is fundamentally a responsibility of the governor, the legislature and organs they create.

“That Board [of Trustees] is set up in a certain way to have oversight and again where were they?” he said.

Duffy suggested that the tragedy could reshape the Board for the better, especially after being AWOL in the lead-up to the outbreak.

“It is a huge responsibility and an opportunity to have some say in what the board of Trustees looks like,” and “what the Board of Trustees’ oversight really is,” she said.

Despite its reputation for inertia, Vega is confident that the legislature can adequately address the issue. He pointed to the support from the Western Mass delegation. Some area members have lots of institutional capital the next rep will need to see reforms through.

While Beacon Hill does not handle proactive well, Vega said the legislature has tremendous capacity to respond to something like this with a big solution.

“I think there is the will unfortunately because of the tragedy,” Vega said. Of course, he added, “This was needed before the tragedy.”