Lawmakers mull range of services while vetting Holyoke home bill

Lawmakers are frustrated by the Baker administration’s push to approve legislation funding construction of a $400 million new Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, viewing the governor’s original request to turn around the bill in seven weeks in order to score federal funds as “a very high bar.”

After hearing testimony on the latest version of the bill (H 96) on Monday, Joint Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets Committee Co-chair Rep. Danielle Gregoire said there is “work that needs to get done” before her panel will vote on whether to advance the proposal.

Lawmakers raised concerns at Monday’s hearing over the timeline at play and over how construction of a new home fits into the broader landscape of veterans services in Massachusetts.

Asked if she was frustrated that Gov. Charlie Baker filed the bill on Feb. 11 and said it needed to be enacted by April 1, Gregoire replied, “Absolutely.”

“The governor is clearly looking for a win on this. I appreciate wanting to help the veterans, but for them to have had these plans in the works — they know how the legislative process works. They didn’t file this bill in February not knowing there were going to have to be processes through which it would move,” Gregoire told the News Service after the hearing. “A bill of this magnitude, to file it at the beginning of February and expect to have it on his desk by April 1 in the first year of a session in the middle of a pandemic was a very high bar to set.”

The Legislature held its first hearing on the bill on March 16, more than a month after Baker filed it, and the State Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee then reported out the current version on March 25.

Baker and his deputies hope to recoup up to 65 percent of the project costs through grants from the U.S. Veterans Administration, pointing to a similar setup for a construction project underway at the state’s other veterans home in Chelsea.

The administration must submit an initial application for the grant program by April 15 and a final application by Aug. 1. That second application requires design development documents, and under state law, the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance cannot start the design process until the Legislature authorizes the funding, Administration and Finance Secretary Michael Heffernan said Monday.

When he filed the bond bill in February, Baker wrote to lawmakers that DCAMM “must have this authorization available by April 1, 2021.”

At Monday’s hearing, four days past that original target, Heffernan told lawmakers that April 1 was not a “drop-dead date” while reiterating the urgency of the issue.

“Every day that goes by increases the risk to the short schedule and further jeopardizes their ability to complete the design development work on this timeline,” Heffernan said. “Failing to meet these strict federal deadlines would delay this project until the next grant cycle, meaning we would need to wait at least another 12 months to be able to apply again. That would cause our deserving veterans to wait even longer for a new facility that accommodates their needs and helps promote an enhanced quality of life.”

Sen. Walter Timilty, a member of the Bonding Committee, asked Heffernan and other administration officials when they determined that Massachusetts would need to submit a grant application for the project.

Veterans’ Services Secretary Cheryl Poppe answered that talks “may have started back in May or June or July,” while Alda Rego, assistant secretary for administration and finance at the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, said the issue has come up on calls between the administration and Legislature.

“I think we can all agree there’s a difference between talking and actually doing,” Timilty replied.

The Bonding Committee is grappling with two new sections the State Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee added when it favorably reported the bill late last month.

One addition implements a project labor agreement encouraging the use of union labor on the project. The change drew split opinions: union leaders said it would increase the use of minority-, women- and veteran-owned local businesses in construction of the new Holyoke facility, while administration officials cautioned that it would do the opposite.

DCAMM Commissioner Carol Gladstone told lawmakers the agreement would create “less opportunity” for minority- and women-owned firms.

“For this project in this location, as we narrow the number of firms, it is more likely that we will end up preferencing firms from Connecticut and New York because of the profile that we’re creating in terms of the subcontractor rule,” Gladstone said.

The State Administration Committee also included language in the bill requiring the Baker administration to conduct a study by June 1, 2021 of the current statewide capacity to provide comprehensive veterans’ services, tying the broader examination to legislative approval for the Holyoke project.

Lawmakers voiced concerns about the thousands of veterans in Massachusetts outside of the two state-run soldiers’ homes in Holyoke and Chelsea and asked if the Holyoke project, which would range between 223 and 234 beds, would fall short on achieving regional equity.

“Are we putting all of our eggs into one basket and not serving adequately veterans in Norfolk County, Plymouth County, and throughout the commonwealth?” Sen. Paul Feeney, the Bonding Committee’s other co-chair, asked.

He urged the administration to partner with the Legislature on boosting other services such as wraparound care. After the hearing, Gregoire said she also wants to see data on the demographics of residents in both the Chelsea and Holyoke homes to see who is currently being supported.

Heffernan defended the administration’s push to reconstruct the Holyoke home due to its age and major flaws exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the deaths of 77 veteran residents.

The project, he said, is based on a “small home design model” offering better care in private rooms and also accommodates a new adult day health program that would support other veterans who remain in their own homes.

“We’re replacing an aging facility, and it should not be thought of as a zero-sum game that we’re doing something in Holyoke and that’s going to take away from resources that we would commit to veterans in other parts of the state,” Heffernan said.

The state’s veteran population is shifting amid broader demographic trends. Women represent an increasing share of veterans as more and more serve, and the state must balance the needs of older adults who served in conflicts decades ago with those returning from overseas in recent years.

Nathalie Grogan, a research assistant for the Center for a New American Security, told a different legislative panel on Monday that the state’s veteran population is dropping 3.5 percent per year, compared to less than 2 percent nationwide.

(Copyright (c) 2021 State House News Service.