Legislative panel discusses steps to fix organizational lapses at Soldiers’ Home

  • An ambulance arrives at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke on March 31. COVID killed 77 residents at the home. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/21/2021 9:57:01 PM

Infection control policies, set staffing schedules and protocols for staff training are among measures aimed at improving conditions at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, hard hit by a COVID-19 outbreak last spring.

In a special joint oversight committee of the Legislature on Thursday, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders told lawmakers that interim Soldiers’ Home superintendent Val Liptak and the team on site are taking a series of steps to make sure that conditions that contributed to the deaths of 77 veteran residents never recur.

“Those are very much works in progress or in place,” Sudders said, acknowledging that internal structures in place under former Soldiers’ Home superintendent Bennett Walsh were inadequate, including lacking the clinical management and operations structure to withstand a pandemic.

“I think we’re on a good path to reform,” Sudders said.

The committee, which is co-chaired by state Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, D-Methuen, and state Sen. Walter Timilty, D-Milton, focused on staffing and other related issues as ways to improve the Soldiers’ Home.

“We have an opportunity that is very precious to provide better care to our veterans,” Campbell said.

While Campbell said she understands staffing is improved and appreciates the work already done as the committee continues to look forward, members also need to understand what caused the emergency situation.

Timilty said the committee wants to make recommendations so the tragedy of “epic proportions” never happens again.

Several committee members, including state Sen. John Velis, D-Westfield, state Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst and state Sen. Anne Gobi, D-Spencer, focused on various issues such as whether Soldiers’ Homes should be treated as skilled nursing facilities, the numbers of full- and part-time staff needed to run the site in Holyoke, and whether the Department of Veterans Services should remain involved.

While Sudders said she would prefer, but not require, that a licensed nursing home administrator is in charge, she argues that one person would not have been able to stop the outbreak.

“What happened at Holyoke was a complete collapse because (internal structures) didn’t exist to manage through a pandemic,” Sudders said.

Now in the chain of command is Eric Sheehan, with a background in the Department of Public Health, who is already providing better oversight on issues, including infection control, Sudders said.

Sudders also said the Soldiers’ Home should be certified by the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services. “There is no reason it should not be,” Sudders said.

Cheryl Lussier Poppe, secretary for Massachusetts Veterans Services, is working on a daily basis with the Soldiers’ Homes in Holyoke and Chelsea and briefing the Legislature every other week on progress, making sure they have a way to take care of veterans with dignity, honor and respect.

Poppe, who was at the home in Holyoke in 2016 and thought staffing levels, at least on paper at the time, were sufficient. Still, she said staffing is a challenge everywhere.

“The veterans’ homes and Soldiers’ Homes need to be places where they are going to be respected when it becomes not safe to be at home,” Poppe said.

Throughout the afternoon, the joint committee heard from numerous other people affiliated with the Soldiers’ Home, including nurse Joan Miller, board member and former chairman Kevin Jourdain and human resources liaison Jessica Powers.

Jourdain said that leadership showed little use for the advice and input from the board and that there was a dysfunctional relationship among the board, Walsh and the Department of Veterans Services.

But Powers said the Soldiers’ Home is in a much better place as people are being held accountable and staff understand how to use personal protective equipment.

“I’m very hopeful for the next chapter for the home,” Powers said.

The session followed one in October when families were invited to testify at a hearing held at Holyoke Community College. The oversight committee heard from staff in separate hearings.

The ongoing work also follows from earlier probes by an independent investigator hired by the governor and the state’s attorney general. The latter investigation resulted in criminal neglect charges being brought against Walsh and former medical director David Clinton.

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