Boston – A recently approved state Senate bill to create a Governor’s cabinet-level Secretary of Veterans Services would require that Secretary to be a veteran, thanks to an amendment added to the bill by state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester). That amendment, one of three successfully offered by Tarr, comes in the context of comprehensive legislation, Senate Bill 2761, the Senate adopted to restructure the governance and management of the state’s present and future veterans’ homes, such as those currently in Holyoke and Chelsea.
The bill, coming in the wake of the tragic loss of at least 76 veterans at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke in 2020 due to COVID-19, establishes a clear and accountable command structure that includes facilities managers that are licensed nursing home operators, and regional councils to provide input in the management process for the homes.
“We clearly need to build a system for governing these facilities, and that system must be led by someone who has the knowledge, experience, insight, and respect that a veteran commands,” said Tarr, who added that “Requiring the Secretary to be a veteran not only ensures that they will have those attributes, it also means that the approximately 380,000 veterans in Massachusetts will know that the person representing them at the highest levels of state government knows what it is like to serve our nation in the military.”
The amendment offered by Tarr to require that the Secretary be a veteran was adopted by a unanimous roll call vote of 39-0 after it was supported in floor remarks by Tarr and colleagues Michael Rush (D- West Roxbury) and John Velis (D- Westfield). Rush currently serves as a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy while Velis serves as a Major in the United States Army. The Tarr amendment was co-sponsored by Senator Mark Pacheco (D-Taunton)
“It’s a great amendment which makes great sense and goes to the heart of the issue. Under the current system the Secretary is a commissioner. Those of us supporting this great amendment and this bill feel it’s extremely important that the person representing the veterans in the administration sits at that table with the governor, has the governor’s ear, and can talk about veterans’ issues,” said Senator Rush. “So this amendment strengthens the overall bill and goes to the very heart, as we talk about chain of command.”
“This is going to be the person in the state with the highest obligation of representing our service members,” said Senator Velis. “I think this is a phenomenal amendment that requires whoever has the honor of filling that job to look at all the veterans in our state and say, ma’am, sir, I do understand, I get it. I think that’s a really important thing.”
Other Tarr amendments that were added to the bill require a statewide education and outreach program to increase veteran awareness of the availability of service through the veterans’ homes operated by the state and to require the statewide advisory council created to advise those charged with managing the homes to make regular recommendations regarding the quality of life of residents, including their social-emotional well being.
Major elements of S. 2761. include provisions to:
• Elevate the Commissioner of Veterans’ Services to a Secretariat level in the Governor’s Cabinet,
• Require the Superintendent of a state-operated veterans’ home to be a licensed nursing home administrator with an understanding of veterans’ issues and experience with management of long-term care or nursing facilities, fiscal management and labor relations,
• Establish a clear chain of command, assign roles to leadership, and require Superintendents to handle the day-to-day management of the homes,
• Increase oversight by establishing entities whose focus is to ensure the effective operation of homes and quality care for residents, including a regional council for each home to represent concerns of the local community, residents, and their families, and
• Empower the Department of Public Health with a statutory responsibility to inspect the homes at least twice per year to increase standards of care.
The Senate version of this legislation must now be reconciled with the provisions of House Bill 4441, An Act Relative to the Governance, Structure, and Care of Veterans at the Commonwealth’s Veterans’ Homes, which was passed by the House of Representatives in February to address similar issues.