Another investigation into the deadly coronavirus outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home is about to begin, led this time by a group of lawmakers named to a special oversight committee.
The committee, cochaired by state Senator Walter F. Timilty of Milton and state Representative Linda Dean Campbell of Methuen, is kicking off its probe this week by inviting family members of veterans who died of COVID-19 to testify, along with staff members who worked at the facility. While it’s important to hear those voices, there’s another voice that should also be heard from. It belongs to Mark W. Pearlstein, the former federal prosecutor hired by Governor Charlie Baker to oversee what Baker called an independent investigation into the deaths of at least 76 residents from COVID-19.
On June 24, Baker — not Pearlstein — released the 174-page “Pearlstein report.” Pearlstein has yet to offer public remarks on the report or allow people to question him in the way that is typical of independent investigations.
When Globe editorial board members sought to discuss the Pearlstein report with Pearlstein, he was unavailable. Asked why, a Baker spokeswoman said, “The report speaks for itself.” Yet, if the investigation into the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home were truly independent, Pearlstein shouldn’t need Baker’s permission to talk about it. He should be free to discuss his findings and any other questions that arise from them in order to earn trust from families and the public that the investigation was thorough and truly independent, leaving no stone unturned.
When Baker released Pearlstein’s findings, he said the report “lays out in heartbreaking detail the terrible failures that unfolded at the facility and the tragic outcomes that followed.” So far, accountability for those failures has been limited to Francisco Ureña, the secretary of Veterans' Services who resigned right before the release of the Pearlstein report; and to former superintendent Bennett Walsh and ex-medical director Dr. David Clinton, who were indicted on criminal neglect charges by Attorney General Maura Healey.
The criminal cases will play out in court. Meanwhile, questions remain about Walsh’s hiring. According to the Pearlstein report, Walsh had no specific qualifications for the job of running a long-term care facility for elderly veterans and ran into management trouble from the start of his tenure. So why did Baker and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders sign off on his hiring and why did they not more proactively address the issues at the facility with management and staffing brought to their attention in 2018 and in a June 2019 report? The public — and the families of the dead veterans — deserve to know. Whether Pearlstein even asked Baker about any of that is unknown. While Baker is listed in the Pearlstein report as having been interviewed, on May 19, the report makes no reference to what he was questioned about, or what specific information he provided. It has left families of victims and the public questioning whether they were given the full story.
Wanting to hear from Pearlstein is not necessarily about assigning blame. The role of lawmakers is to address changes that need to be made in governance and management of the Soldiers’ Home. That’s where Pearlstein’s voice is really important, since he laid out a detailed set of recommended reforms, including at least one that Baker has so far failed to embrace by pushing for the needed change to state law — a requirement that future superintendents of the facility “should be licensed nursing home administrators with substantial healthcare experience.” Baker calls for “a preference” for hiring a licensed nursing home administrator — not a requirement. The Pearlstein report strongly suggests that better understanding of public health risks and precautions might have helped prevent deaths. Being able to hear from him directly would help lawmakers decide if the governor’s response has been aggressive enough to safeguard against threats to veterans’ lives.
In interviews, both Timilty and Campbell said they are committed to a full and thorough investigation, culminating in a report that’s due by March 31, 2021. Family members of veterans are invited to testify in person at Holyoke Community College on Oct. 20, or virtually on Oct. 22; staff are invited to testify in person at Holyoke Community College on Oct. 27, or virtually on Oct. 29.
Timilty called what happened at the Soldiers’ Home, “a mass tragedy of epic proportions.” As for the committee’s mission, he said, “We owe it to the veterans who perished to make sure it never happens again.” Asked if the process might include an invitation to Pearlstein to testify, Timilty said the committee may consider it, and that “all options” are “on the table.”
The purpose of holding an independent investigation is not just for leaders to understand what went wrong and reckon with it, but to regain the public’s trust in their government after a failure. That’s why it’s time for Pearlstein to speak for Pearlstein, and for lawmakers to ask to hear from him.
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