On Sunday, the West Springfield VFW held a ceremony honoring the 74 veterans who lived at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home and died of COVID-19. “Amazing Grace” was played on bagpipes and a 21-gun salute was fired in their memory.
That’s nice. But a true salute is one that tells the whole sad story of what happened there. Before any formal investigation is complete, the narrative of what went wrong already reeks of political patronage and bureaucratic incompetence. And to that familiar Massachusetts mix, add the politics of geography.
In a recent column in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, John Paradis, a retired lieutenant colonel and former deputy superintendent at the facility, raises its Western Massachusetts location as a contributing cause to its current plight. Back in 2013, he writes, the facility’s leadership team was working on a plan for a new wing that would provide 120 single, private rooms, to provide greater independence and safety for residents. The management team was also able to obtain a VA construction grant to cover 65 percent of the cost. However, Holyoke’s plan was ultimately ditched in favor of a plan for a facility much closer to Beacon Hill. According to Paradis, Governor Charlie Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and the entire state legislative delegation instead got behind a $199 million construction plan for the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home. Holyoke, he writes, “got a nice consolation prize — a promise to do another study.”
Would a new wing allowing for more separation of residents lower the death count? No one knows. Nationally, nursing homes and veterans’ homes are epicenters of COVID-19 contagion, accounting for one-third of related deaths. In Massachusetts, COVID-19 deaths in long-term care facilities account for nearly 60 percent of the state’s tally, and the deaths at the Holyoke facility currently rank as the highest in the country.
Some local nursing home industry representatives believe that disastrous outcome is partly due to the state’s initial focus of making sure hospitals could handle the projected surge of coronavirus cases while ignoring long-term care facilities. “There’s a sports metaphor here,” Richard Bane, the president of BaneCare Management, which operates 11 nursing homes and two assisted-living facilities in Massachusetts, told CommonWealth magazine. “The state was guarding the wrong man early on.”
At the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, it’s fair to ask whether the Baker administration was ever guarding the right man. According to the Globe, Paradis and other top managers brought staffing and budget concerns to the attention of various Baker administration officials, including Francisco Ureña, the secretary of Veterans’ Services, back in 2016. Receiving no support, Paradis and others quit in protest. The next superintendent appointed by Baker was Bennett Walsh, the son of a Springfield city councilor, who brought no health care management experience to the job. Union members at the Soldiers‘ Home also told the Globe they met with Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders in December 2018 to complain about staffing and leadership issues. She ordered up a study, which changed nothing.
No one was paying attention to Holyoke until alarming news reports of multiple COVID-19 deaths and bodies being stored in a refrigerated truck on the premises. Baker said he first learned of the deaths on March 29. Walsh, who is now on paid administrative leave, insists that he fully informed state officials of the developing crisis and the impact of COVID-19-related staffing shortages. Still, as recently as March 10, Walsh was giving a glowing review of the facility’s operation to the board of trustees, according to ProPublica.
Baker has had little to say about the Soldiers’ Home beyond recalling it as a “special place” and pledging to get to the bottom of what happened there. Meanwhile, several reviews are underway. Getting to the bottom of what happened there means taking a hard look at his administration’s priorities and asking some tough questions. Who gets attention and action? And who gets lip service, followed by a bagpipe send-off?