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Court approval, state funding needed before Holyoke Soldiers' Home families get COVID settlement

The Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, Massachusetts.
Miriam Wasser

The state of Massachusetts has agreed to a $56 million settlement to compensate victims and families for the tragic COVID-19 outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home.

Governor Charlie Baker said he wants to provide closure for families of those veterans. At least 76 veterans died amid the outbreak there in 2020.

Matt Murphy from the State House News Service explained what must happen next before the families receive their checks.

Matt Murphy, State House News Service: Well, the lawyers in this case will go before the federal judge who heard the complaint this week, present the settlement, explain how they arrived here and presumably get the approval of the judge.

And then the governor will have to file for funding and a supplemental budget later this year to cover the cost of this settlement with the Legislature. But, as you mentioned, the governor [and] his administration reaching this deal with the families — 84 families in total, who lost loved ones, will be getting payments out of this settlement. And the governor said that he hopes this brings closure to the family by not forcing them to go through a trial and a legal process here and relive all of these painful memories.

This will result in payments of $400,000, $500,000 on average to the families. And even those who did not lose loved ones, but whose loved ones contracted COVID-19 while under the care of those in charge of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home during the outbreak, will also receive smaller sums as part of this deal.

On another topic, Baker in late 2020 vetoed legislation to expand abortion access in the state, saying that it went too far. But he says he is absolutely open to discussing protections for health providers who offer abortion care to patients in other states — states where abortion could become illegal should Roe v. Wade get overturned. So is there enough time to get a majority of lawmakers on board?

There is. What we're hearing a lot about, though, is dependent on what happens with the Supreme Court. Governor Baker said after the decision that he was troubled by the draft opinion from the court that would overturn Roe v. Wade and that he was open to something like the law that Connecticut passed and Governor Ned Lamont signed. But that Connecticut law came in response to a Texas law, and what Connecticut officials were worried about were people perhaps traveling to Connecticut seeking abortion services.

What we're hearing now from [Massachusetts] lawmakers, advocates, is that they don't want to rush into something. They want to see the finalized Supreme Court decision, what it looks like, the exact details before they craft — or if they craft — a response to it. So, depending on the timing of that decision coming out and being finalized, we could see something this session.

Senate President Karen Spilka said last week that the Senate is looking at language in the Senate budget. We don't know exactly what she was referring to and that will be debated in two weeks. They could be looking to do some small things. We know that they've created a separate line item in this year's budget — the Senate proposing $2 million to improve access for family planning clinics. The House also has money in its budget, so this is one way lawmakers are responding to the leaked SCOTUS draft.

And finally, barely a month or so into the Russian invasion into Ukraine, Massachusetts lawmakers allotted $10 million to help resettlement agencies in the state prepare for an influx of refugees. It's now months into the fighting and that funding has not been released to the organizations who do that work. And now there's a disagreement over how the money can be used. Where's the confusion and who can sort this out?

The resettlement agencies want to be able to use this funding to support all of their clients. This would be refugees coming from Ukraine, but also from Afghanistan, from Haiti, and from other South American and Central American countries fleeing violence and coming into the United States. Since this money was approved, there has been a disagreement in the office about whether or not it was intended by the Legislature to be used explicitly for Ukrainian resettlement.

But the two sides, I'm told, are working together. Late last week, the [Baker] administration said that the Office for Immigrants and Refugees was working on revising its criteria for how this money could be used. And they hope to get the money out "expeditiously." So while lawmakers are preparing to address this and provide some clarity in the Senate budget next week, it may not be necessary.