Legislators told to hold up on Soldiers’ Home fixes

  • A memorial for Daniel Szczur is part of a memorial at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke. Photographed on May 15, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • A sign thanks the nursing staff at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke. Photographed on May 15, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

State House News Service
Published: 7/14/2020 6:54:13 PM

When Gov. Charlie Baker filed a bill proposing oversight and governance changes at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home after the deaths of at least 76 veteran residents with COVID-19, he urged lawmakers to act on it swiftly.

Legislators on the Veterans and Federal Affairs Committee got the opposite message at a hearing Tuesday from speakers who asked them to delay action on the bill or not act on it at all.

“My bottom line ask for you is to get this right by first actively soliciting public input and secondly, by setting up a series of hearings, meetings and focus groups and to truly listen to those who know the Soldiers’ Home best,” said John Paradis, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who resigned as the home’s deputy superintendent in 2015.

Northampton Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa also asked her colleagues not to act on the bill and said they could potentially choose to incorporate some of its points in a “more robust bill.” She said residents of the home, their family members and others from western Massachusetts “do not feel like they were included in the crafting of the legislation before you today.”

Sabadosa told the committee that the worst phone calls she has received during the COVID-19 crisis were the “panicked, desperate” calls from relatives of Holyoke Soldiers’ Home residents who were unsure if their loved ones were safe. She said that even as an elected official she had to answer their questions “with the constant line, ‘I don’t know, I’ll try to find out.’”

Filed in the wake of a scathing report from independent investigator Mark Pearlstein, Baker’s bill would require the Department of Public Health to annually inspect the state’s two soldiers’ homes in Holyoke and Chelsea, bring the process for appointing the Holyoke superintendent in line with what’s done in Chelsea, and expand the homes’ boards to include two new members with clinical or administrative health care experience. It would also create a new assistant secretary of veterans’ services post, replacing the never-filled position of executive director of veterans homes and housing.

“These reforms will ensure that the Holyoke Soldiers’ home is restored to its rightful place —  a place that honors our veterans for their service and treats them with dignity, honor and respect,” Baker wrote in his filing message before urging a “prompt enactment” of the bill.

Baker’s bill (S 2788) landed before lawmakers on June 25. House Speaker Robert DeLeo indicated he’d like to take a longer-term approach to reforming the oversight of the soldiers’ homes, beginning with a legislative investigation into Holyoke.

U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling and Attorney General Maura Healey each have been separately probing the events that led up to the COVID-19 outbreak at the Holyoke home, and the House and Senate on July 2 adopted an order creating a special joint oversight committee, which has until next March 31 to submit its findings and any draft legislation.

Veterans and Federal Affairs Committee chairs Rep. Linda Dean Campbell and Sen. Walter Timilty will lead the panel.

Campbell said Tuesday that the special committee will have subpoena power and that it will “look at all aspects of the Holyoke tragedy with the purpose of bringing forth very substantial legislation.”

“Our goal is to take our time and get this right,” she said.

Paul Barabani, who retired from the superintendent post in Holyoke in 2016, and Paradis both told the committee that a lack of adequate resources from the state contributed to their departures.

Barabani said he was “encouraged” to hear that lawmakers were embarking on their own investigation and recommended they not act on Baker’s bill until they’ve completed that process and drawn their own conclusions. He called the Pearlstein report, for which he and Paradis were both interviewed, “very limited in scope.”

Testifying on behalf of the Baker administration, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said the bill addresses several of the Pearlstein report’s recommendations.

Changing the Holyoke superintendent hiring process so that the next candidate is appointed by the health and human services secretary and approved by the governor “clarifies the accountability and ensures a clear chain of command,” Sudders said.

She said annual inspections by the Department of Pulic Health would make the soldiers’ home — which is separately inspected by federal authorities — consistent with other long-term care facilities in the state. Increasing the number of trustees, she said, and ensuring some have health care experience would help boards fill the important role of providing connection to the community and counsel to management.

Timilty, who called Baker’s bill a “very important first step,” asked Sudders several questions about the board of trustees, including whether she’d consider looking out-of-state for trustee candidates.

Sudders said she hadn’t contemplated that, citing “extraordinary expertise” in health care within the state. “Health care is one of our signature industries in Massachusetts,” she said.

“I would be reluctant to limit ourselves to geographic boundaries,” Timilty replied. “Geographic boundaries aren’t what they used to be in this day of modern technology.”

He asked Sudders “what kind of net” she envisioned casting for the proposed new trustees with health care backgrounds.

Sudders said there is a current vacancy on the Holyoke board, and one person “was recently referred to us as a potential board candidate” who is a veteran, a nurse and from western Massachusetts.

“In my mind, that’s like the perfect candidate to serve on one of our two boards,” she said.




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