Federal lawmakers on Friday urged Governor Charlie Baker to appoint an independent investigator to determine what led to the deaths of 31 veterans at the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home from coronavirus.
“Recent public reporting has cast doubt on whether the COVID-19 response at the Home adequately protected veterans,” wrote Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, and US Representative Ayanna Pressley.
The lawmakers asked that an investigator determine what caused the outbreak at the home, where, in addition to the deaths, at least 40 sick veterans were sent to other facilities for care. Warren, Markey, and Pressley want to know whether officials provided accurate counts of the number of deaths and infections, and what, “if anything,” can be done in the future to prevent or reduce the likelihood of a similar outbreak.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, which oversees the two Soldiers’ Homes, did not directly address the lawmakers’ request, but defended Chelsea’s efforts to control the virus’ spread.
“COVID-19 has had a significant impact on long term care facilities, including Soldiers’ Homes, here and across the country and the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home has comprehensively prepared for and aggressively responded to COVID-19,” wrote Brooke Karanovich.
The members of Congress acknowledged that officials at Chelsea Soldiers’ Home appear to have taken more aggressive action to protect veterans than at the other state-run home for veterans, Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, where at least 76 residents died of COVID-19. The report of an independent investigation there, released on Wednesday, found that leaders in Holyoke made “utterly baffling” decisions during the pandemic.
The report, by former federal prosecutor Mark Pearlstein, described a facility where deplorable conditions and a lack of leadership proved deadly for dozens of veterans. In the most glaring failure to control the virus, two locked dementia units — with both infected and non-infected veterans — were combined, a decision investigators described as catastrophic.
The federal lawmakers pointed out that the two soldiers’ homes are different — the Chelsea home has a larger budget, less staff turnover, and undergoes periodic inspections by the US Department of Veterans Affairs and other accreditation groups.
Still, the lawmakers noted that news reports have detailed similarities between Holyoke and Chelsea — where residents of a secure dementia ward were moved into other, congested quarters.
The Chelsea Soldiers’ Home, the lawmakers wrote, also did not have private rooms where sick veterans could be isolated and treated.
Several infected Chelsea residents were moved to the VA Medical Center in Bedford, where some of them died. Several VA employees said they believe Bedford was unprepared to care for the sick vets from Chelsea and their presence triggered an outbreak at Bedford, where more than 50 veterans, inpatients and outpatients, have died of coronavirus.
Both Chelsea and Holyoke receive some federal funding, but are managed and primarily funded by the state.
“Like the families of veterans who died or became infected from COVID-19 at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, the families of Chelsea Soldiers’ Home veterans who have suffered from this disease deserve meaningful, lasting accountability and reforms. An independent inquiry can help facilitate such results.,” the lawmakers wrote.
Francisco Urena, the state secretary of the Department of Veterans’ Services, was forced to resign as Pearlstein’s report on Holyoke was about to be released. Bennett Walsh, the Baker-appointed superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, was placed on administrative leave March 30. He has maintained that he provided state officials with daily updates as the outbreak spread in late March.
This week, Baker chose Cheryl Poppe, the superintendent at the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home, to replace Urena as acting secretary of the Department of Veterans’ Services.
Pearlstein’s report said Poppe — like Walsh — was not licensed to run a nursing home, but is widely considered to be a “highly competent manager.”
Baker on Thursday outlined several proposals designed to increase accountability at the soldiers’ homes.
And Health and Human Services spokeswoman Karanovich said the Baker administration “will hire an infection control specialist to review protocol at the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home. The administration has been updating the state and federal delegations weekly since April on both Soldiers’ Homes and will address the members’ questions directly.”
Andrea Estes can be reached at email@example.com.