'Very Troubling' Holyoke Soldiers' Home Report Elicits Calls For Major Changes At The Facility
Updated at 8:22 p.m.
Lawmakers, officials and others weighed in Wednesday on findings of an independent report that said leadership at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home made "substantial errors and failures" in handling a deadly COVID-19 outbreak.
Seventy-six veterans at the state-run facility testing positive for the virus have died in recent months.
John Paradis was a deputy superintendent at the Soldiers' Home until 2015, and has been critical of state support for the facility. After reading the report, he said much needs to be changed.
"[It needs] staffing that ensures the utmost safety for veterans; the approval of a new or vastly improved facility in Holyoke that is state-of-the-art, and which meets the highest of standards in long-term care," Paradis said.
Paradis is also calling for a change in governance for the Soldiers' Home.
Governor Charlie Baker said Wednesday he plans to introduce legislation to increase oversight of the facility and its staff as soon as Thursday.
Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Nurses Association — which represents some unionized employees at the Holyoke facility — said the report supports the concerns of staffers at the home.
The nurses' union says it has long been concerned about safety and and staffing conditions at the home, and that it disagreed with several steps taken by management as it faced the coronavirus.
Andrea Fox, with the nurses' association, represents workers at the facility. She said the report paints an accurate picture of the situation.
"I was very impressed by the way it was worded," Fox said. "I felt like it was very strongly worded, and the descriptions were really horrific, and very troubling... I'm hoping that because it was worded so strongly, that this report will be taken very seriously."
The Democratic candidates for the 1st Massachusetts Congressional district reacted to the findings in the report.
Holyoke Mayor and challenger Alex Morse was one of more than 100 people interviewed for the report. He said he still hears almost daily from people who lost family members at the facility.
'There's really no report, or resignation, or action that we can take now that will bring those veterans back," Morse said. "And I just hope that if anything comes of this, it's improving access to quality care for our veterans, including really improving the Soldiers' Home in many ways."
In a statement, incumbent U.S. Rep. Richard Neal of Springfield said, "this report reaffirms what I have been saying from the start of this awful tragedy: there must be accountability for what happened at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home... Now, more than ever, it is time to refurbish the facility and it must be treated with the same equity as its counterpart in Chelsea."
The report, commissioned by Governor Charlie Baker, was conducted by Attorney Mark Pearlstein.
Several other offices are investigating the outbreak in Holyoke, including the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, and state Attorney General Maura Healey's office.
Healey said in a statement the report "lays bare systemic failures of oversight by the Baker Administration in adequately preparing, staffing, and responding to this crisis to protect our veterans." From the statement:
These veterans served our country and risked their lives to protect us, and our state wholly failed to protect them. Our ongoing investigation will determine whether these missteps and errors warrant legal action.
Baker said Wednesday he plans to pursue the termination of Soldiers' Home superintendent Bennett Walsh, who's currently suspended. The report was highly critical of Walsh's handling of the outbreak, and said the veterans' affairs department failed to properly address concerns about his leadership.
William Bennett, who is Walsh's attorney and uncle, issued a written statement late Wednesday disputing many of the statements and conclusions in the report.
"We are also disappointed that the report contains many baseless accusations that are immaterial to the issues under consideration," the statement reads. "We are reviewing the report and will have more to say in the days ahead. We are also reviewing legal options as it appears that the action by Secretary Sudders and Governor Baker violates the order of the Superior Court and denies Mr. Walsh the opportunity for a fair and public hearing."
Bennett notes that the report affirms as false the original accusations levied against Walsh that he "reported nothing to state officials and tried to keep everyone in the dark."
"It is clear that Mr. Walsh reached out for help when the crisis erupted," the statement reads. "He indeed did request National Guard medical assistance. The failure of the Commonwealth to affirmatively respond to that request contributed to many of the problems outlined in the report."
Baker also announced Wednesday the resignation of Secretary of Veterans' Affairs Francisco Urena.
NEPR's Heather Brandon contributed to this report.