A Merrimack Valley legislator charged with investigating COVID-19 deaths at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke said millions of dollars in federal funding to build a new veterans' facility is an opportunity that must be seized.
"This is a project we cannot finance solely on our own," said state Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, D-Methuen, the only female veteran currently serving in the state Legislature.
Campbell, who was a paratrooper and intelligence officer in the U.S. Army and married a fellow Army veteran, currently chairs a special joint oversight committee investigating 77 COVID-19 deaths in 2020 at the Soldiers' Home.
The oversight committee is expected to make recommendations in the near future to improve management and care at the home, along with that for veterans statewide.
In the meantime, in an effort to address what legislators and advocates have called longstanding inequities, the House voted 160-0 Thursday afternoon to approve legislation authorizing $400 million in long-term borrowing to pay for a new facility. The legislation now moves to the Senate for a vote.
Lawmakers have joined Gov. Charlie Baker's administration in trying to speed the bill's passage in order to apply for as much as $260 million from the federal government, which would leave state taxpayers to cover the remaining $140 million.
Of the state's 305,000 veterans, Campbell noted 159,000 of them are over age 65.
"Our Vietnam veterans will soon need the best long-term care we can offer, along with the many veterans suffering from (traumatic brain injuries) and (post-traumatic stress disorder). Additionally, women are the fastest growing veteran population in Massachusetts and we need a facility prepared to care for this growing population," Campbell said.
"As we continue our investigation into the root causes of the tragedy at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, we must also seize this opportunity to acquire needed federal support to modernize the facility at Holyoke," she added.
A recent joint statement released by House Speaker Ronald Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka echoed the sentiments.
While the bond authorization for a new facility is necessary, "at the same time, we must recognize that in order to truly provide the services our veterans deserve, we must build on our previous work to reform the statewide structure and governance system for veterans' homes and services," the statement reads.
"As we are all sadly aware, last year's Holyoke Soldiers' Home leadership crisis resulted in the death of over 70 veterans, representing at the time the highest percentage of deaths due to COVID-19 in any elder health care facility in the United States," according to the joint statement.
Construction of the new soldiers' home is expected to occur between the summer of next year and the summer of 2026. The move to the new building is scheduled for the fall of 2026, with demolition of the existing facility following the move and ending in the spring of 2028. The final site work and landscaping will occur between the spring and summer of 2028, according information provided by Campbell.
An initial application was due to the Veterans Affairs State Home Construction Grant Program on Thursday. A spokesperson for the Executive Office of Health and Humans Services confirmed the state had sent it in this week.
The application must be vetted by Veterans Affairs before it can be shared publicly, the spokesperson said.
An application with full design plans of the facility is due to the federal government Aug. 1. Lawmakers who spoke Thursday stressed the importance of quickly passing the legislation so the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance can begin the design and development process.
After the COVID-19 deaths and illness of staff and veterans, a consultant hired by Baker authored a report that found serious flaws in staffing, administration and communication at the soldiers' home. The report and ensuing outcry led to the resignation of then- state secretary of Veterans' Services Francisco Urena, formerly of Lawrence.
This article is written by Jill Harmacinski from The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.