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Massachusetts Senate to weigh in on soldiers' homes oversight

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The Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, Massachusetts.
Miriam Wasser
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WBUR
The Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, Massachusetts.

Nearly two years after a deadly COVID-19 outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers Home, Massachusetts senators this week will debate a reform bill.

At least 76 veterans died of COVID-19 at the home.

Matt Murphy of the State House News Service says senators will consider a measure that aims to fix the chain of command at the state's two veterans homes.

Matt Murphy, State House News Service: Like the House bill, this would require future superintendents — the leaders of these two soldiers' homes — to be licensed nursing home supervisors.

It would also establish a new oversight board, and make some other changes, including the addition of an ombudsman to make sure that these places are being run well, efficiently and safely, for the hundreds of veterans who call these places home.

One of the big changes here is that the Senate bill proposes to elevate the secretary of veterans' services, who ended up getting pushed out after the Holyoke situation during the pandemic. It would be elevated to a cabinet level position within the governor's administration.

This is something we heard flagged by some critics of the House bill. They were concerned about chain of command and making sure it was clear who was responsible for making the decisions that impact the lives of these veterans who live in the Holyoke and Chelsea homes.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: So this is a different bill than what was already passed in the House. What are the odds of this getting passed and then being reconciled?

Monday is the amendment deadline for senators. This will come up on Thursday for the Senate, and it is almost assured to pass through that branch, and then they will get into negotiations. There's a lot of time between now and the end of the session, and this is a top priority for leaders of both branches.

I think you can reasonably say this is likely to get done. What that final product looks like remains to be seen. There will be details that need to be hashed out between the two branches and signed by Gov. Baker, but I think this is something that we can reasonably expect to get done this session.

The Massachusetts state budget process continues. Lawmakers on the Joint Ways and Means Committee will hear from the health sector this week.  With a background of previously leading a health insurance company, will Baker likely want to leave his mark in the health care sector in this, his last budget proposal as governor?

Well, a couple of things are going on. The Joint Ways and Means hearing Monday is focusing on health care. I think we're likely to hear from lawmakers a bit about the state's Medicaid program. They've already been probing the administration with questions about this. Spending on this is about to go down a bit, because the federal government is allowing states — which they were not doing during the pandemic — to reevaluate eligibility for people.

The governor is also expected at any point now to file a major health care bill. We've heard from him that it could look a lot similar to what he filed last session. That was when he proposed mandating major increases in spending of behavioral health of primary care, and other areas of the system that he believes could improve health outcomes, and also wring out some of those costs that come from people who get very sick. It's more costly to take care of them then than it is if they maintain their primary care or mental health care when they need it most.

Finally, last week, Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka asked why the House hasn't taken up bills passed by the Senate to expand access to mental health and lower prescription drug costs. The comment comes as House Speaker Ron Mariano expressed his frustration with the Senate's unwillingness to take up sports betting. Matt, you reported on this. Why is leadership tying all these issues together?

Yeah, there's a little tension here. I mean, this all stemmed from Speaker Mariano taking a bit of a shot at the Senate, and calling them stubborn for refusing to take up the sports betting issue to this point. When I asked Senate President Spilka about this, she pushed back — and she wanted to know why the House doesn't get asked as much as she does about sports betting; why the House doesn't get asked why they haven't taken up the mental health access bill that the Senate passed, or the prescription drug cost lowering bill that the Senate passed — two issues she said she considers equal to, if not more important than, sports betting.

This is kind of the normal run of show for the Legislature at this point in the year. These bills tend to stack up. Legislators in both branches have their own priorities. They're trying to push their agendas forward, and whether these get traded at the end, whether the House takes up the Senate's bills before the end of the session, we will have to wait and see. But sometimes these are used as bargaining chips. Sometimes it's just a matter of timing.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.