Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey on Friday announced that she is appointing Democratic state Rep. Jon Santiago to serve as the state’s first Cabinet-level veterans’ secretary.
The action comes after lawmakers last year approved a bill creating the Executive Office of Veterans’ Services in response to the deaths of dozens of veterans who contracted COVID-19 at a Massachusetts veterans home in 2020.
Santiago’s responsibilities will include helping oversee the superintendents of the state’s two veterans homes. He will be formally sworn in on March 1.
The coronavirus outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke in the spring of 2020 was one of the deadliest outbreaks at a long-term care facility in the U.S. A federal judge last year approved a nearly $58 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit filed in response to the deaths.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs said 84 residents died and roughly the same number were sickened. The defendants were four former leaders at the state-run home and the Secretary of Health and Human Services. With the settlement, which is being paid by the state, claims against the five were dropped.
An investigation by an ex-federal prosecutor hired by former Republican Gov. Charlie Baker found that management at the home made several ‘utterly baffling’ decisions that allowed the virus to spread almost unchecked.
Healey, a Democrat, said Santiago’s ‘public health expertise and military service make him uniquely qualified to serve as Massachusetts’ first ever Secretary of Veterans’ Services.’
Santiago is a major in the U.S. Army Reserve, an emergency medicine physician at Boston Medical Center, and a former volunteer in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic. The Boston resident has also served as a state lawmaker since 2019. He launched an unsuccessful bid for mayor in 2021.
‘Our veterans deserve the absolute highest quality of care, but they are far too often underserved,’ Santiago said in a written statement, adding that the administration is ‘committed to meeting the complex needs of those who have bravely served our country.’
As veterans secretary, Santiago will be charged with working with the newly constituted Veterans’ Homes Council, which was also created by the legislation.
The council’s responsibilities include recommending improvements for veterans’ homes, submitting recommendations for appointments and removal of veterans’ homes superintendents, and writing an annual report reviewing the homes’ demographics, finances, staffing levels and resident well-being.