State Lawmakers Hold Hearing On Bill Authorizing New Holyoke Soldiers' Home
The Massachusetts legislature is being asked to act with uncharacteristic speed to authorize constructing a new Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke.
The Secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Veteran Services, Cheryl Poppe, testifying at a virtual legislative hearing Tuesday, said passage of a $400 million bond bill is the first step needed to build a replacement for the 70-year old long-term care facility for veterans in western Massachusetts.
"It is Holyoke's time. It is Holyoke's turn," Poppe said.
The Baker administration filed the bill to finance construction of a new Holyoke Soldiers’ Home just last month. Administration officials said the legislature needs to pass it by April 1st in order to meet a series of deadlines set by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to obtain federal reimbursement for 65 percent of the project’s cost.
Advocates have sought a new Soldiers’ Home for decades. The efforts gained urgency after at least 76 veterans at the home died last year during an outbreak of the coronavirus.
"The administration has taken rapid action to plan for the construction of a new facility that will provide a comfortable modern health care environment for aging Commonwealth veterans and that is one designed for more privacy and strong infection control measures," Poppe said.
The administration is proposing a 235-bed facility with mostly private rooms and an adult day health care facility.
Among those urging the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight to give the bond bill a favorable recommendation were several state legislators from western Massachusetts, representatives from veterans’ organizations, and members of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition, which includes veterans’ advocates and family members.
John Paradis, a former administrator at the Soldiers’ Home and spokesman for the grassroots coalition, said a new state-of-the-art facility is needed for future generations of veterans.
"It is well known out in western Mass that the Soldiers' Home has long been underfunded and understaff and after this past year with COVID-19 there should not even be a single ounce of opposition ot bone of contention about making the new Soldiers' Home the right home," said Paradis.
The committee did hear opposition to the administration’s plan from Jesse Flynn, Massachusetts legislative director for the Disabled American Veterans organization. He said the state’s veterans’ population has declined 45 percent since 2000 and is projected to shrink even more.
"We question the rationale for making huge investments into only one or two large and centralized facilities that will offer access to only a small portion of our elderly veteran population especially when the relevent data and projections show greater needs on Cape Cod and the South Coast," Flynn told the committee.
The other state-owned long-term care facility for veterans in Chelsea is undergoing a $200 million upgrade that was authorized in 2018.
State Senator Marc Pacheco, the committee co-chairman, said the tight timeline sought by the administration for passing the bond bill does not afford much chance for legislative input on the plans.
"There is nobody here talking about not investing in Holyoke," said Pacheco. "It is the level of investment. It is making sure there is equity across the state with funds."
The committee heard from representatives of several building trades unions who said building a new Holyoke Soldiers’ Home would create much-needed construction jobs.
They urged the committee to include a requirement for a project labor agreement in the final bond bill.