If the state builds a sparkling new $400 million facility for veterans in Holyoke, who will get to call it home?
The answer, of course, should be that any Massachusetts veteran who needs the kind of care that soldiers’ homes provide ought to have a fair shot at admission.
But that’s not the way the current facility’s admissions process appears to work. The facility takes no account of financial need, and who-you-know has long been whispered to carry weight in deciding who receives the heavily-subsidized care. The racial demographics of the facility are also striking. According to data provided by the Department of Veterans’ Services, nearly all are white men.
The demographics at Holyoke can be partially explained by the age and World War II-era of service of many of the facility’s residents. But as that generation fades away, who will have access to future care at that location? And is spending limited state resources for veterans’ long-term care on a 200-plus bed institution in Holyoke the best way to serve a veteran population that’s spread across Massachusetts? Some advocates believe that it’s better to deinstitutionalize care, and instead utilize small home designs across the state. Those questions have rightly become part of the debate over a new facility. The Massachusetts House approved a $400 million bond bill earlier this month. Last week, the Senate reported a version that adds $200 million for “regional equity” for expanded services in other parts of the state. It’s scheduled for debate in the full Senate on April 29. According to Masslive.com, the state would be eligible for up to $260 million in federal funding from the US Department of Veterans Affairs. An Aug. 1 deadline for submitting plans, along with encouragement from US Representative Richard Neal of Springfield, about the availability of federal funding for a new facility, is driving the action on Beacon Hill. Governor Charlie Baker is also pushing for the bond bill.
As lawmakers rush to finalize the bond bill, the legislative oversight committee that is looking into governance and management issues at the Soldiers’ Home after at least 77 veterans died last year of COVID-19 has not yet issued its final report. The committee expected to hear testimony from Paul Moran, the chief of staff at the Department of Veterans’ Services, but he suddenly rescinded his offer. The committee was also hoping to hear from Francisco Ureña, the former secretary of veterans’ services who resigned in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis at the Soldiers’ Home. ”The committee thought their testimony was important to their mission. We were disappointed,” said state Rep. Linda Dean Campbell of Methuen, who co-chairs the oversight committee, about the failure so far to get that testimony.
Campbell, who is a veteran, also said the oversight committee is concerned about access to care for all veterans. Besides the Holyoke facility, the state also runs the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home. “It’s important to ensure that veterans all over the Commonwealth are aware that these two homes belong to everyone,” said Campbell.
Noting that all veterans can apply for admission to either facility, a spokesperson for the Baker administration said via email that the Department of Veterans’ Services “has strengthened outreach efforts... to reach more veterans with information about our programs, services and eligibility.” As for the current demographics at the Holyoke facility, the spokesperson said the breakdown “is comparable to the overall Massachusetts veteran breakdown.”
Of about 305,000 veterans living in Massachusetts, close to 12 percent are minority. According to state data, 107 of 114 residents of the Holyoke facility — or 93.9 percent — are white. Seven — or 6.1 percent — are Black or Hispanic. Age no doubt accounts for some of the disparity. Geography might account for some too — state officials claim that more resident applications come from proximate towns.
Meanwhile, as Jesse Flynn, the legislative director and assistant adjutant for the Disabled American Veterans, points out, Hampden County is home to two of the most diverse cities in Massachusetts — Springfield and Holyoke, where the soldiers’ home is located; and the veteran population in Hampden County is 13.1 percent minority.Since that population and the state’s overall veteran population are far more diverse than the Holyoke home’s, diversifying Holyoke’s population should at least be an explicit goal for the future.
State Representative Russell Holmes of Mattapan said he voted for the bond bill, on a promise he said he got from House Speaker Ronald Mariano that reforms to admissions would be put in place. To Holmes, reform should involve “means testing” to make sure veterans with the greatest need would have access to the home.
But approving funding for a new facility before reforming how it’s run and veteran services across the state are distributed seems backward — and risky. To that, state Sen. John Velis of Westfield said “You can say we’re putting the cart before the horse. But we have to put the cart before the horse” — or miss the federal funding opportunity. Velis — who also serves on the legislative oversight committee, describes the bond bill as “phase one” and governance and equity issues as “phase two”. As a veteran and major in the US Army Reserves, Velis said getting it right is personal; and he is committed to putting Massachusetts “on the path to making sure every veteran has a place and has an option where they can obtain long term care services.”
It’s up to lawmakers to make sure that happens. That means making expanded access to long-term care for all the state’s veterans a priority.
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