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$600M bond bill for new Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, more services for veterans statewide passes Massachusetts Senate in unanimous vote

April 29, 2021

After today’s vote, the bill will either be headed to a six-member conference committee or the governor’s desk, depending on the House’s decision to accept the bill and the amendments passed.

State officials and the Legislature have been racing to push the bill through to satisfy an Aug. 1 deadline to secure up to $260 million in federal reimbursement for the Holyoke project.

While no lawmaker opposed the Holyoke project, per se, some argued pouring millions into soldiers’ homes in Holyoke and Chelsea left veterans in other parts of Massachusetts with a dearth of services. State Sen. Michael Rush, a Democrat representing portions of Norfolk and Suffolk counties, said during today’s hearing that as a former chairman of the Joint Committee on Veterans’ Services, challenges to soldiers’ home projects often draw immediate ire.

“If you so much as question anything having to do with either of these homes, you are accused of being anti-veteran or unpatriotic, which I think is shameful,” said Rush, a veteran and among the first to raise the issue of regional equity.

The bond bill was first proposed by Gov. Charlie Baker after at least 77 veterans lost their lives to COVID-19 during the pandemic. Many more contracted the virus along with dozens of staff. The deadly outbreak was blamed, in part, on the cramped, outdated facility built for wounded World War II veterans in 1952.

Sen. John Velis, D-Westfield, has worked tirelessly to pass the bond bill and made yet another appeal to his Senate colleagues during the latest debate over the legislation. In addition to opening his remarks with stories of the late veterans and families of veterans he has met at the home — which is in his district — Velis emphasized the camaraderie among the facility’s residents.

“If you get a group of veterans together and get them talking, anything is possible. Their shared lived experiences, their camaraderie, their bonding, is second to none. And that is one of the main reasons these soldiers’ homes are so special and need to be preserved,” Velis said.

The Holyoke Soldiers’ Home had more than 250 residents pre-COVID and rooms often hosted three and sometimes four veterans, forcing staff to shimmy around tightly-packed beds and park wheelchairs in hallways.

“There is no doubt that the physical structure of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home contributed to the outbreak and spread of COVID-19 last spring at the facility. Without the appropriate spacing and infection control, without private rooms, the virus ran rampant throughout the home,” Velis said.

Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, called the vote “an important step toward healing” for both the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home and Western Massachusetts.

“I’m proud to vote in support of funding the reconstruction of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, an effort led by my friend, Army veteran, and 413 partner Senator John Velis,” Lesser said in a statement. “The outbreak and events of last spring were a frightening reminder that many veterans across the country aren’t receiving the care and dignity that they deserve in exchange for their selfless sacrifice to serve our country. It is a sacred obligation that I take to heart. I am proud of the Massachusetts State Senate for taking this long-overdue action together today and look forward to the opportunity ahead with the creation of this new facility.”

While the bond bill was otherwise an easy sell, a handful of lawmakers wrangled over a project labor agreement opponents argue favor union shops, while proponents counter that any qualified contracting firm is still free to bid on the project.

A “PLA-plus” amendment that passed 37-3 includes language designed to ensure a diverse workforce of contractors including women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. The amendment also will require the state’s building to periodically report on the progress of the construction project.

If the bond bill prevails, the project is slated for completion in 2026.

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