The longtime public health official chosen to oversee the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home after a catastrophic COVID outbreak in 2020 said he was terminated for raising concerns that dangerous disease prevention practices persisted even after the deaths of 76 veterans that spring.
Eric Sheehan, who was tapped to identify and fix problems at state-run veterans’ homes in Holyoke and Chelsea after the Holyoke tragedy, alleged in a whistle-blower claim that staff continued to place COVID-infected veterans too close to uninfected veterans, a practice that allegedly fueled the original outbreak. Sheehan said he became so worried about safety issues that he went to Inspector General Glenn Cunha.
Four days later, in October 2021, Sheehan was fired by the secretary of Veterans’ Services, though it’s unclear if his supervisors knew about his visit to the inspector general.
A second official who Sheehan had recruited for a top position at the Chelsea home was dismissed in September, days after flagging safety and staffing problems there. Beth Scheffler, the acting chief nursing officer in Chelsea, also filed a complaint with the inspector general shortly before she was terminated.
“I identified serious problems with the quality of care veterans were receiving and I brought these concerns to my supervisors,” Sheehan said in an interview. “Instead of being recognized for my diligence, I was ignored and ultimately terminated.”
Sheehan and Scheffler filed a joint whistle-blower claim with Attorney General Maura Healey’s office this month — the first step toward filing a lawsuit — and outlined their allegations in interviews with The Boston Globe. They both allege state officials, including Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders and her key aides, violated whistle-blower and other laws that prohibit retaliation against employees who file complaints.
Sheehan’s lawyer, Andrew Couture, said the state also violated family and medical leave protections by firing Sheehan while he was on medical leave due to an emotional breakdown. Sheehan said he had become overwhelmed after months of working 20-hour days during the pandemic, forcing him to take several medical leaves in 2021.
The attorney general and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services declined to comment on the allegations. “We don’t comment on pending legal matters or personnel matters,” said a health services spokeswoman.
A spokesman for the inspector general also declined comment.
The allegations from Sheehan and Scheffler raise questions about whether state officials fully learned the lessons of the spring 2020 COVID outbreak in Holyoke where veterans at one point were dying so fast that administrators brought in a refrigerator truck where bodies could be stored.
A certified nursing assistant already has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of dozens of fellow workers, alleging they faced “inhumane conditions” as the virus swept through the state-run facility.
After the outbreak, Healey brought criminal charges against the former Holyoke superintendent Bennett Walsh and the former medical director, alleging they put elderly residents at risk by combining sick and healthy residents with dementia in the same unit because of a staffing shortage. A judge dismissed the charges in November, but Healey has appealed.
A few months after the Holyoke outbreak, Governor Charlie Baker selected Sheehan, who was then acting superintendent at the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home, to oversee the homes in both Holyoke and Chelsea. Sheehan, a former Marine, previously spent three years as a public health regulator for the state Department of Public Health.
In his new job as assistant secretary for Veterans’ Homes, within the department of Veterans’ Services, Sheehan quickly became alarmed at the poor health precautions he saw in Holyoke. He said that sick and healthy veterans were still being placed in the same part of the hospital — though not the same unit — in violation of state and federal rules.
Nor were staff always following safety rules about hand washing, masking, and wearing appropriate protective apparel, he alleged.
“They weren’t doing it consistently and across the facility because there was no policy in place,” he said.
But when he raised these concerns with his supervisor, Secretary of Veterans’ Services Cheryl Poppe or officials in health and human services, he said his suggestions were rejected or ignored.
“You have to have policies in place to be able to train people. They didn’t even have the policies in place — this was after the debacle,” he told the Globe in an interview.
That’s why he took his concerns to the inspector general on Oct. 14.
Sheehan, who said he had always received sterling performance reviews, was informed he was being fired first by phone and then in an Oct.18 letter from Poppe.
The Department of Veterans’ Services “lost confidence in your ability to act as Assistant Secretary for Veterans’ Homes due to your poor judgment, which has been discussed with you,” she wrote before requesting he return all state-issued equipment. Sheehan said such a discussion never took place.
At the time he was fired, Sheehan was out on medical leave, after becoming a casualty, he said, of the long pandemic. After working 20-hour days for months on end, he had gone on leave in March 2021. He had come back twice before going out on leave again in September.
“I hit a breaking point from the yearlong battle and was diagnosed with PTSD and severe depression. The job was my battlefield and I was fighting an invisible enemy. I was the commander, and I poured every ounce of my blood, sweat and tears into my job,” he said.
Both Sheehan and Scheffler said the hazards for veterans at Holyoke and Chelsea went beyond lax COVID management. They said the two homes kept veterans medical records on paper, unlike virtually every other skilled nursing facility in the state, which use electronic record keeping.
Scheffler said patient records were piled high on the floor in Chelsea, sometimes in no particular order. She said one family of a deceased veteran needed his medical records to prove he died from COVID, but it took weeks to find them.
“That’s what prompted me to go to the records room,” Scheffler said. “It was utter disarray. It looked like a paper mill exploded.“
Scheffler also repeatedly raised concerns about nursing staff shortages in Chelsea. There were more than 30 vacancies in nursing positions, she said, which were filled by temporary agency hires or through overtime.
“I was concerned about the impact financially and the risk to residents,” she told the Globe in an interview.
She said she was shocked when she was told in September that her services were no longer needed — just days after she wrote e-mails detailing her concerns.
“I am a little devastated if you want to know the truth,” she said. “They need to follow the rules and make sure people are safe and not waste taxpayers’ money. I had 20 years of exemplary public service and was recruited to go to a facility that was in dire need of help. Now I’m faced with individuals who were and are still trying to ruin my reputation.”
Just days before she was terminated, supervisors told her they wanted her to take the chief nursing officer position permanently, she said.
“I was doing a really good job, putting policies and procedures in place that hadn’t been there. It was all good, good, good. I never had discipline, never a black mark. It’s unbelievable to me. Emotionally, I’m really wounded by it,” she said.
It’s unclear whether her supervisors knew that Scheffler filed a complaint with the inspector general before she was terminated.
Caitlin Clark, a nurse who resigned from Holyoke Soldiers’ Home last week, said safety practices have not really improved at the home.
Infection control is inconsistent, she said, and the administrators continue to rely on agency help instead of hiring full-time nurses.
“I was hopeful when we got a new administration,” Clark said. “Things that caused the whole ordeal — those things are still happening.”
Clark said she loved caring for the veterans even during the pandemic, but she couldn’t take it any more. “I wouldn’t have quit if there was a slightest bit of hope.” she said.
The attorney general’s office now has six months to respond to the claims contained in Sheehan and Scheffler’s letter. If Healey doesn’t respond or denies the claim, Sheehan and Scheffler can then file suit.
Sheehan and Scheffler are looking for state officials to acknowledge that they raised legitimate concerns and to pay damages to compensate them for being wrongfully terminated, according to Sheehan.
Andrea Estes can be reached at email@example.com.