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January 24, 2024

Healey calls for overhaul of state’s veteran services

A woman stands behind a podium as a crowd applauds in front of her Image | Courtesy of Sam Doran / State House News Service Gov. Maura Healey delivers the State of the Commonwealth address on Jan. 17.

Pitching it as "the best way to honor" military members who died in the line of duty, Gov. Maura Healey and the state's top veteran services official urged lawmakers Tuesday to overhaul a wide range of services and benefits for Bay State veterans.

Healey's omnibus veterans bill surfaced three months after she filed it for a hearing, where the governor and Veterans Services Secretary Jon Santiago said the state needs to streamline and expand supports for current and former servicemembers to give them the care they deserve.

The legislation (H 4172), which Healey dubbed the HERO Act, calls for 17 different spending and policy changes with a combined goal of expanding benefits, modernizing services, and ensuring that veterans of all backgrounds are included and represented.

Santiago, a former representative who left the House to become the first Cabinet-level veterans secretary, called the bill "the most comprehensive piece of veterans legislation filed by a governor in almost two decades."

Healey told the panel that when she was sworn in last year, she took the oath of office on a family Bible that stretches back to an ancestor who served in the Civil War.

"I did that intentionally. It means something to me. I'm proud to be able to serve with all of you in Massachusetts, home to the American Revolution, birthplace of the National Guard, birthplace of the Navy. We claim some of the Army as well -- fight over that," she said, prompting laughter from attendees. "All we've been able to do as a great commonwealth was only made possible because of the service and the sacrifice of the men and women who served and their families."

Benefit-related provisions in the bill include an increase in the annuity paid to disabled veterans from $2,000 per year to $2,500 per year, authorization for veterans on Chapter 115 benefits to be reimbursed for outpatient behavioral health care visits, and a significant extension for an active duty service buyback program from 180 days to 10 years.

Santiago said the bill would support veterans who move on to public-sector jobs, many of them as first responders, by more easily allowing them to have their military service count toward their eventual state retirement benefits.

"Today, a veteran has 180 days upon joining state government to make that decision to buy back four years of paid service," he said. "The transition to civilian life can be challenging, nevermind the fact that enrolling in this program from day one can be quite cost-prohibitive. It's not a realistic decision to make within six months of starting a brand new job."

The bill would also update how the state Chapter 115 benefits program defines a veteran, which Healey's team said would make more veterans eligible for annuities and benefits and better align Massachusetts with federal policy.

Bruce Buckley, CEO of the nonprofit Soldier On, said updating eligibility for the Chapter 115 program would allow his organization to help even more veterans facing housing insecurity.

"That's how we can help someone get into permanent housing," he said. "If you have little or no income, that's the tool that we use to make it work. We've been doing it for years and there's always been this exclusion."

Other bill highlights include a pilot program to reimburse same-sex couples who pursue in-vitro fertilization to have a child and a study of the health benefits of psychedelic substances to treat physical or mental health disorders in veterans.

"It takes an important stand for mental health -- which we know we've seen a disproportionate impact on our military community -- recognizing the need for enhanced health care and addressing the hidden wounds that have afflicted our veterans disproportionately," Healey told the panel. "It also makes Massachusetts more affordable for veterans."

Lisa McPhee, adjutant of the American Legion Department of Massachusetts, offered one of the few notes of caution about the bill as drafted during Tuesday's hearing.

McPhee said while the Legion sees many benefits in the bill, one part of it -- waiving license plate fees for specialty veteran plates -- could have unintended consequences. The payments collected from those specialty license plates serve as revenue streams for the state's two soldiers' homes, McPhee said. She estimated that lifting the fees could cut recreational program funding by $600,000 at the Chelsea facility and $400,000 at the Holyoke facility.

"You can't be out here beating your chest about the HERO Act when you're taking from this side and not realizing we haven't replenished it," she said.

A spokesperson for the Executive Office of Veterans Services said after the hearing that waiving license plate fees would not impact operations at the two homes. Revenue from the fees is spent on capital projects, equipment, consultants and administrative support, according to the spokesperson, who added that money from license plate fees is not always spent.

Veterans could also choose to donate $40 to the homes once their fees are waived under the bill, the spokesperson said.

Healey unveiled the legislation on Nov. 9. Lawmakers on the panel offered vocal praise as they dove into the topic Tuesday.

Sen. Michael Rush, the committee's current vice chair who helmed it in the past, said Massachusetts historically has been able to offer some of the best veterans benefits in the country "because of caring individuals who come to this building and want to make things better for the veterans, the Gold Star families and all of their families."

"That tradition is continuing through this piece of legislation, and I just wanted to sincerely say thank you for making this a priority," Rush, a West Roxbury Democrat, told Healey and Santiago. "Keep up the great work."

Committee co-chair Sen. John Velis of Westfield opened the hearing by calling for a moment of silence in honor of U.S. Navy SEAL Christopher Chambers, who was identified this week as one of two servicemembers who died during a mission off the coast of Somalia on Jan. 11.

The senator noted that Chambers attended Westfield High School, and said his wife went to school and competed on the same swim team as the SEAL.

"Hearing some of the stories, the humanity, the type of person he was -- we lost a good one," Velis said at the hearing. "A lot of times when we hear about our servicemembers and when they lose their lives or are hurt, a lot of times we hear it on the news and it's distant, it's far. This one wasn't."

Healey and Santiago mourned the loss of Chambers in statements on Tuesday, and the governor during the hearing referenced other Massachusetts natives who died during military service in the past year.

"It just seems like this year, we've seen and experienced a lot of heartache," she said.

Healey soon added, "It is ever more incumbent upon us, and the best way to honor a hero like Chris Chambers is to make sure we put forward the very best in terms of what we can do."

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