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OPINION

Baker’s perception vs. reality at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home

Despite the governor’s idyllic description of the home, the state had plenty of notice of its unmet needs.

A refrigeration truck sits outside the Holyoke Soldiers' home on Friday afternoon, site of the state's largest fatal outbreak of the coronavirus.
A refrigeration truck sits outside the Holyoke Soldiers' home on Friday afternoon, site of the state's largest fatal outbreak of the coronavirus.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

“A happy, joyous, fun, graceful, and kind place.” That’s how Governor Charlie Baker described the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home at a March 31 press conference.

Maybe it was — but as of Monday, 25 veterans are dead, 18 of whom tested positive for COVID-19. As bodies were loaded into a refrigerated truck, family members say they were kept in the dark about the grim turn of events.

Meanwhile, despite the governor’s idyllic description, the Soldiers’ Home was also a place with staffing problems so severe that top managers stepped down in 2016 to protest the state’s lack of support.

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“I resigned because of the failure of the state to truly understand the human, physical, and financial resources necessary to accomplish our mission to provide the best possible care for veterans," John Paradis, the home’s former deputy superintendent, told the Globe’s Naomi Martin and Hanna Krueger.

According to the Globe, the state had plenty of notice of unmet needs. In a 2015 memo to state Secretary of Veterans’ Services Francisco Ureña, then-superintendent Paul Barabani warned that “current staffing levels are inadequate and jeopardize patient safety and quality of care.” When his warning went unheeded, Barabani, too, quit in protest.

He was replaced by Bennett Walsh, the son of a Springfield city councilor. Walsh has an impressive resume, if you are looking for someone to lead a military operation. According to his LinkedIn profile, Walsh is a retired lieutenant colonel, with 22 years of active-duty military service in the Marine Corps, which includes combat duty in Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He graduated from Providence College and has a master’s degree from Tufts University and the US Army War College. What he lacked at the time of his appointment was relevant health care management experience. But perhaps more important to Baker is what Walsh told MassLive news on the day of his swearing-in: “There’s definitely not a lack of funding from Boston for us.”

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The longstanding debate over staffing and proper leadership became more than hypothetical when COVID-19 hit. According to employees who spoke to the Globe, 40 men were crowded into one wing, and a dozen were sleeping in a dining room. Caregivers were ordered to move between the infected unit and others without adequate protective gear. Managers threatened to discipline workers or dock pay if they called in sick.

After the Holyoke death toll mounted, Walsh was placed on paid administrative leave, and Baker ordered up an independent review.

It will be hard for Baker to plead ignorance about the conditions at the Soldiers’ Home, as he did after a truck driver — whose Massachusetts license should have been suspended following a drunk driving charge in Connecticut the month before — was charged with killing seven motorcyclists in New Hampshire. An independent audit concluded that the Registry of Motor Vehicles gave a low priority to processing out-of-state violations. But Baker said he knew nothing about that massive administrative backlog that resulted — and neither did Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack.

Union members at the Soldiers’ Home told the Globe they met with Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders in December 2018 and complained about understaffing and a hostile work environment. Sudders, in turn, asked Suffolk University to assess the facility’s staffing plan. According to that report, nurses said they were struggling to find backup; but management said staffing was sufficient and the nurses needed to step up productivity.

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So Sudders, a member of Baker’s cabinet, certainly knew of staffing concerns. And, it’s hard to imagine Baker was unaware, given the circumstances that preceded Walsh’s appointment — the decision by the superintendent, deputy superintendent, and chairman of the board of trustees to quit in protest because they didn’t feel the state was giving the Soldiers’ Home the resources it needed.

At that March 31 press conference, Baker also said, "I can’t tell you how different this story is than the reality of what the place has been, for literally decades.”

That’s Baker’s perception of reality — which is very different from the reality of those people who begged the state for help.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.