Soldiers’ Home reforms praised, but staffing and command concerns remain

  • The Massachusetts National Guard did a fly over of area hospitals with F-15's including the Soldiers Home in Holyoke Wednesday, May 6, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/29/2022 9:29:20 PM

HOLYOKE — Some 28 months after a massive COVID-19 outbreak swept through the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, killing at least 76 veteran residents of the facility, state lawmakers have passed legislation reorganizing the governance and structure at the state’s two veterans homes.

The bill acts on many, though not all, of the recommendations that a special legislative commission made after a probe into the deadly outbreak. In a statement, state Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, described the legislation as “a major step toward rethinking how we deliver care to veterans of every generation across Massachusetts.”

There was plenty of congratulations from state lawmakers when both the Senate and House passed the bill unanimously on Friday. Spilka praised state Sen. John Velis, D-Westfield, for his work on the conference committee that married the two chambers’ versions of the bill.

State Rep. Daniel Carey, D-Easthampton, managed to add a successful amendment during debate on the bill that mandates that three of the five board of trustee members for the veterans homes be war veterans, families of veterans who lost their lives, family of current and former home residents, or family members of disabled veterans.

“I am grateful to my colleagues for listening to the concerns of our western Mass. constituents,” Carey said in a statement. “This has been a priority bill this session and I’m glad to see it cross the finish line.”

But outside of Beacon Hill, the reaction was a bit more mixed.

“I’m not a fan or proponent of bigger government because I think it creates more red tape,” said Springfield’s Laurie Beaudette, whose 83-year-old Navy veteran father James Mandeville died of a coronavirus infection at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home during the outbreak. “But it is a step in the right direction.”

Beaudette said the biggest fix still needed at the home is taking care of the front-line workers there.

“It doesn’t address funding for staffing, and that’s really, when you get down to the nitty gritty, what needs to happen down there,” she said. “They can’t function on a skeleton crew forever. They need to pay the workers better and to address the poor morale up there and the toxic work environment.”

Cory Bombredi, an organizer with the union the represents many staffers in the facility, SEIU 888, said his members support aspects of the bill but that it “doesn’t go as far as we needed it to go.”

Bombredi praised the fact that the bill makes the state secretary of veterans affairs a Cabinet-level position, giving that person direct access to the governor. He also noted that the home’s new superintendent and director of nursing have been great to work with.

But he lamented that the bill takes some power from the local board of trustees, and that it does nothing to pay workers better — particularly housekeepers, kitchen and maintenance staff, who the state doesn’t consider direct-care workers.

“They can’t hire people” because of low wages, Bombredi said, and the inability to retain people impacts families of veterans. “All of the good quality workers who have become part of their families eventually leave, they go,” he said.

John Paradis, a leader in the local Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition advocating for better conditions at the facility, said the bill represents a compromise.

“With all that said, it’s much better than the status quo and does add in a number of checks and balances, which is especially needed,” said Paradis, who in 2015 resigned as deputy superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home after he said state officials failed to act on staffing concerns he and then-superintendent Paul Barabani had raised.

Velis will be chairing a working group that will oversee implementation of the reforms. Paradis said that he’s hopeful that Velis and the working group will keep the bigger picture in mind, such as some of those staffing concerns, especially as the state builds a new facility for veterans on the hill.

“He has pledged that he will work with us as a veteran community, to listen to us, and more importantly listen to the staff,” Paradis said.

Paradis said the bill still leaves unclear what the chain of command is at the state’s two soldiers’ homes, where he said a superintendent should be able to immediately get the attention of the governor.

“And at the end of the day, my concern is that it is still top-heavy, overly bureaucratic,” Paradis said.

“Something like a pandemic or an emergency, the medical staff inside the home need to be able to get immediate attention, which didn’t happen during the pandemic,” he said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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