The clock is ticking on passage of a $400 million bond bill for a new Holyoke Soldiers Home. Passage of the bond is critical in getting $260 million in federal reimbursement money for the project. The call for a new Soldiers Home comes after 76 veterans died from COVID-19 last year at the facility. 

Currently, the bond bill is being debated by a joint legislative committee. State Senator John Velis is one of the members of the committee.  

Connecting Point’s Ray Hershel recently spoke with Senator Velis, who shared an update on when the committee will vote on the bill and how likely it is that a new Soldiers Home will be built in Holyoke. 

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: The clock is ticking on the passage of a 400 million dollar bond bill for a new Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. Passage of the bonds is critical in getting 260 million dollars in federal reimbursement money for the project, and a Massachusetts Joint Legislative Committee is holding hearings on the bill.

The call for a new Soldiers’ Home comes after 76 veterans died from COVID-19 last year at the facility. Connecting Point’s Ray Hershel recently spoke with Committee Member State Senator John Velis to get an update on what the committee is considering and what the likelihood is that a new Soldiers’ Home will be built in Holyoke.

Sen. John Velis, (D – Westfield): I think the most important thing to remember about these deadlines is they’re not deadlines in the sense that you or I would kind of consider a deadline. And that if it doesn’t happen by this date, the project is not going to happen. The only real deadline for that is August 1st, when the final application is due. What these deadlines per se, if you will, have to do with, is the amount of time.

That’s really the Baker administration saying that De-Cam needs three to four months to do these projects. So August 1st, we’re now in April. So they’re not deadlines, April 1st or April 15th, and that if it’s not done, the project doesn’t happen. But what we’re doing, is we’re limiting the number of days that De-Cam has to do that. thorough, really robust design project.

So, we’re not going to miss anything as long as we get it done this month. But, I think we need to give De-Cam — we need to equip De-Cam to have that time period to get it done.

Ray Hershel, Connecting Point: Some legislators have raised some questions with regard to the four hundred million dollar bond bill for a new Holyoke soldiers home, citing what they called regional equity.

When they talk about regional equity, what are they referring to? And is this going to be a stumbling block going forward?

Sen. John Velis: What they’re referencing is that there’s only two soldiers’ homes in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and they just want to ensure that their veterans and their districts are taken care of.

I’ve ensured each and every one of them that as the chairman of the Veterans and Federal Affairs Committee for the state of Massachusetts, that I will support any home, any veteran services that exist out there for the very simple reason that a veteran is a veteran, is a veteran, no matter where you lay your head at night.

Ray Hershel: Senator, assuming this bond bill passes the legislative process, is signed by the governor, what kind of time frame are we talking about in terms of construction of a new Soldiers’ Home? When would it be completed? And what would it mean and how important would it be for the veterans that it serves in western Massachusetts?

Sen. John Velis: I mean, it’s absolutely critical for the veterans that serve in western Massachusetts. So, to answer your question about the time frame, right now, the tentative date is a year from this coming summer when they’ll begin.

Obviously, there’s a lot of moving parts in terms of, you know, this is a state-federal collaboration. VA state home construction grant program is actually going to fund sixty five percent of this. And I think that’s important to remember, because the cost to the Commonwealth would be 140 dollars.

And I would just say we live in a day and age where we don’t have a draft anymore. So people, you’re going to be hard pressed to find a service member or veteran who has been to Iraq and Afghanistan just once. Typically, it’s two or three times. And that’s just the nature of the force, because we don’t have a draft, we can’t nickel and dime this type of a project. This needs to get done. It means the world to Western Mass veterans, but it also means the world to veterans throughout this Commonwealth and this entire nation.

I mean, if I were to show you my email inbox in my phone, the level of support that we’ve gotten from across the country in light of what’s happened, this isn’t just a Western Mass thing. This is a veteran thing, and recognizing those who volunteer to put themselves in harm’s way for the rest of us. Shouldn’t be nickel and diming this at all.

Ray Hershel: Senator, you serve on the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee, which is been looking into what happened at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home and the unfortunate COVID-related deaths of some 76 veterans in Holyoke. Can you bring us up to date in terms of where that legislative committee and its hearing stands now? I think there have been something like eight public hearings that you’ve held so far.

Sen. John Velis: Yeah, I anticipate probably one to two more. One of the things that we’re really doing a deep-dive into is kind of the structural set up of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.

Very specifically, the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home reporting up to the Department of Veterans Services, who then reports up to the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. One of the real issues that I found to be so alarming is that the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home staff was actually following the guidance that they were given to report confirmed COVID cases deaths.

The problem was that if you just have confirmed, as opposed to suspected or pending, particularly at a time early in COVID, in March, when the testing, there was such a lagging in testing, you were only able to report up one or two veterans who passed away. Whereas if you had initially put out guidance that said in a state policy that had been we want to know about reported deaths of COVID even in suspected cases, as opposed to confirmed cases.

And why I think that’s really important is because if it was a suspected case, you would have had seven or eight deaths as opposed to the one or two. And that would have caused the state to say, “wait a second, we’ve got a bigger problem here than meets the eye.”

The Holyoke Soldiers’ Home was following what they were supposed to do, in terms of their reporting up. It was the state who wasn’t following and wasn’t adhering to their own guidance. And that was a huge disconnect.

And I think that kind of goes back to what we’re talking about when we say, we need to really do a deep-dive in the communication, the chain of command, how information is reported up. And I think that would have gone a long way — and will go a long way into the future.

It’s important, like someone said at the last Oversight Committee, we need to look back at what happened, but we don’t want to stare. At the end of the day, we need to push forward to ensure that something like this never happens again.

Ray Hershel: Now, the the Pearlstein report, which looked into what went wrong at the Soldiers’ Home, was critical of the administration, particularly Administrator Bennett Walsh at the time. But it didn’t do a lot of great digging in terms of systemic problems at the Home.

Is the Oversight Committee looking beyond the administrator and looking at systemic problems that existed at the home and perhaps culpability beyond that?

Sen. John Velis): Absolutely. There’s an argument to be made that what transpired at the Holyoke Soldier’s Home in March 2020 and shortly thereafter was 50 years in the making.

There are a lot of systemic and structural changes, and I think we’ve spoken about some of them. Again, that that breakdown of communication, who reports to who, all of that stuff. And I’m partial to the belief that the Pearlstein report, although it was a good guide, it was just the beginning.

The recommendations really focused more on that time period when it happened. And anybody who’s been involved with this home knows that there were some problems brewing for a long time. And there’s got to be some type of — we need to really clean up some of these statutes governing the home. How superintendents are selected, what the Board of Trustees’ authority is, who reports to who.

So, there’s a lot of things that I would have liked to have seen the Pearlstein report get into. But that’s OK, we’re going to take it up.