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Briefings: New & Improved Veterans Office Overseeing Homes Opens…

Holyoke Soldiers' Home

New name, still lots of lost of trust to regain at the Massachusetts Veterans Home in Holyoke. (WMP&I)

About a month short of the three-year anniversary of the COVID-19 conflagration at the Holyoke Soldier’s Home, a new structure to oversee veterans programs has taken effect. Legislative action dates to the earliest reports on the Soldiers’ Home outbreak. However, things picked up speed after the legislature issued its own report in 2021.

The reorganization, which took effect March 1, elevates veterans benefits and health care to the cabinet via the Executive Office of Veterans Services (EOVS). Previously, these services had been a department of the Executive Office of Health & Human Services. Investigators of various stripes concluded this setup contributed to logjams in management and function, particularly at the home in Holyoke.

Earlier this year, Governor Maura Healey appointed now-former Boston State Rep Jon Santiago to lead the new Executive Office of Veterans Services reporting directly to her.

 “This is a historic day for Massachusetts veterans, service-members and their families,” Healey said in a statement the new office released this past week. She praised her new secretary’s history of service as she welcomed Santiago into her administration.

“As a physician, legislator, and US Army reservist, he brings a wealth of experiences and knowledge that will enable him to lead with compassion and move forward in continuing to improve care for Massachusetts veterans,” Healey continued.

Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll echoed those sentiments. She said with EOVS up and running and Santiago at the helm, Massachusetts is better positioned to ensure veterans are heard and that the commonwealth leads in delivery of services to them.

Jon Santiago

Long roads ahead for now-Secretary Santiago. (via WBUR/Santiago campaign)

“I am honored to serve as Secretary of Veterans’ Services and am grateful to Governor Healey and Lieutenant Governor Driscoll for their trust and confidence in me,” Santiago said in the EOVS release.

Santiago, a major in the US Army reserve, served two tours overseas. He said he looked forward to working across state government to secure veterans services and benefits “worthy of their service.”

The outbreak in Holyoke killed at least 76 veterans. The Home’s superintendent at the time, Bennett Walsh, lost his job and faces prosecution for his actions. The Supreme Judicial Court is considering an appeal of a lower court dismissal. Subsequent investigations found poor management and decision-making at every layer of the executive including then-Governor Charlie Baker. The existing system would no longer do.

Baker signed the legislation creating the new office and its structure last August.

In addition to elevating Veterans Services, the legislation revises chain of command at the Homes in Chelsea and Holyoke. The Secretary clearly appoints each home’s superintendent now. Both homes have been renamed Veterans Homes in their respective cities. There is now an Office of Veterans Homes and Housing. The executive director of this office chairs a new Veterans Homes Council.

EOHHS still has a role, with the Secretary for that department appointing some members of a new Veterans Homes Council. Each home must also secure Department of Public Health certifications and pass twice-annual inspections.

Westfield State Senator John Velis, whose district includes the now-Veterans Home in Holyoke, welcome EOVS’s startup.

“Having a cabinet-level Veterans’ Secretary, who can relay and represent the needs of Veterans throughout Massachusetts, is a major change and I am excited to see the Executive Office of Veterans Services get up and running,” he said in a statement to WMP&I. “I will continue to support the Executive Office in their transition and as they implement the governance and oversight reforms for our Veterans’ Homes that the Legislature passed last summer.”

The opening of EOVS could not come a moment too soon. In January, the Massachusetts Inspector General found failures at the Home in Chelsea, too during the Baker administration. A subsequent lawsuit filed in federal court pointed to deaths due to that facility’s COVID-19 outbreak. An earlier lawsuit arising from the deaths at the Holyoke Home settled for $56 million.

Santiago has a lot of work ahead of him to fully restore care and trust among veterans and their families.