Veterans, advocates demand say in Soldiers’ Home changes

  • From left to right, Laurie Mandeville-Beaudette, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, former Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Superintendent Paul Barabani, and Roberta Weber-Twining speak at a press conference outside of the Soldiers’ Home. STAFF PHOTO/MICHAEL CONNORS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/27/2020 6:41:09 PM

HOLYOKE — A coalition of veterans, their families and local advocates are raising concerns with changes announced by Gov. Charlie Baker that are intended to improve oversight and operations at the Soldiers’ Home.

Called the “Coalition to Fund the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Now,” the group demanded Friday that none of the governor’s extensive list of changes be made without an outreach effort first. Baker ordered the changes after the release of a scathing report last week by his administration that detailed mismanagement of a COVID-19 outbreak that killed 74 veterans at the home.

“The outreach effort must include a process for the state to receive feedback and consensus from family members and from the Veteran community in western Massachusetts,” a statement from the coalition reads. “This is our first and most important demand of the administration.”

Advocates are also calling on Baker’s administration to commit to a renovation and to expanding long-term care at the home while maintaining a minimum 250 long-term care beds. Baker has announced that the state has started an expedited capital project process for improvements to the home.  

At a press conference outside the Soldiers’ Home Saturday with some members of the coalition, including former Soldiers’ Home superintendent Paul Barabani, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal expressed support for investment into renovating the facility. He contrasted the state-run facility in Holyoke with its counterpart in Chelsea, where a $199 million redevelopment is targeted to open in 2022.

“I think what we’re talking about here is the ideal of regional equity,” said Neal, whose uncle is a resident at the Holyoke home. “Meaning that what’s about to happen with the investments in Chelsea’s Soldiers’ Home also be consistent with what is being proposed here.”

The coalition is demanding that improved rooms be in full compliance with federal Department of Veterans Affairs and accessibility requirements, which would include a private toilet and shower in each one-person room. The coalition is also seeking, among other things, enhanced dementia care units and the creation of an adult day health care program. 

Neal said patients “literally sat on top of each other” in the dementia unit, with two veterans to rooms that had no showers, and said staffing should be increased. During a House Ways and Means Subcommittee hearing on COVID-19 and nursing homes last week, the congressman said local citizens should have a voice in decisions made about the facility, that there should be adult day health care as well as no reduction in the number of beds.

“I intend to offer whatever assistance that the federal government can, remembering that this is a state facility,” Neal said at the press conference.

John Paradis, a Gazette columnist, member of the coalition, and former deputy superintendent of the home, said in a phone interview that the group had originally focused on seeing the state commit to a $116 million project submitted in 2012 that would have brought a five-story addition and the renovation of the existing facility. The federal government would cover 65% of the cost, but the project has yet to receive matching funds from the state, and with July 31 the deadline for obtaining the matching funds, the group members decided to instead to broaden their advocacy.

“With the original project, there are some elements of it that will need to be adjusted. But what we’ve been after all along is that this needs to be on a fast track; there needs to be the political will to make that happen,” Paradis said. “It’s huge to see Congressman Neal involved in this.”

In addition to the coalition’s advocacy for specific improvements to the home, the group is taking issue with Baker’s change that the state Department of Veterans’ Services oversee the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. Instead, the group is asking Baker that both Soldiers’ Homes be aligned under the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Hospitals.

“Veterans are a special population with multiple physical and behavioral health challenges distinct from the general population, and DPH is far more capable in overseeing and providing regulatory guidance to the two homes than the appointment of an individual in the Department of Veterans’ Services,” the group’s statement reads.

Baker has also proposed changes to both Soldiers’ Homes’ boards of trustees, increasing both boards from seven to nine members, adding two people with a health care background and making the state veterans department and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services’ secretaries ex-officio members. The governor has also proposed that the state Secretary of Health & Human Services appoint the superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.

These two changes have drawn the ire of the coalition. In regard to the board of trustees, the coalition is proposing appointments to the boards be made from congressionally chartered Veterans’ Services Organizations and veterans groups in Massachusetts.

“To have the administration place two of its governor-appointed secretaries on the board would further destroy the autonomy of the board and would subject the Homes to the political and fiscal priorities of the administration, resulting in continued underfunding and understaffing as has been the case over the past several years in Holyoke,” the statement said.

The coalition made similar arguments regarding Baker’s announcement that the facility’s superintendent would be appointed: “Such an appointment is perceived by the Coalition as a political maneuver to solidify loyalty to the administration,” the group said.

Laurie Mandeville-Beaudette — whose father, James Mandeville, died of COVID-19 at the home in April — urged Baker at the press conference Saturday to heed the coalition’s demands, including one that that a full-time geriatric physician be the medical director; and that staff include a geriatric nurse practitioner and a psychiatric nurse practitioner.

“Having a new facility would be the best memorial to my dad and the other veterans who have lost their lives,” Mandeville-Beaudette said.

Michael Connors can be reached at 
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