For six months high-ranking members of the Baker administration knew but did little or nothing about what the state’s inspector general called a “catastrophic failure” in the leadership of the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home — the “terrible” condition of some rooms, the feces, dead rodents, bugs, and “culture of distrust and tribalism” among staffers fostered by a superintendent who presided over it all.
Today, Superintendent Eric Johnson, is gone.
On Thursday, Governor Maura Healey replaced Johnson, a week after state Inspector General Jeffrey Shapiro exposed the festering scandal in a scathing letter to then Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders as she headed out the door. Shapiro’s aim was clear, as he warned, “This office intends to continue to monitor the situation at the Home, to share these concerns with your successor and to make further recommendations as necessary.”
That dose of well-timed sunshine worked. Assistant Secretary of Veterans’ Homes and Housing Robert Engell was named acting superintendent Thursday, and a spokeswoman for Healey released a statement saying, “Governor Healey and her administration remain committed to protecting the health, safety and wellbeing of our veterans.”
The woman who as attorney general prosecuted the former superintendent and medical director of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in the wake of 84 deaths there at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic (and in her final days in that office asked the courts to reinstate those subsequently dismissed criminal charges), surely knows the consequences of failed leadership on a vulnerable population.
It shouldn’t have been her job to clean up the detritus of an administration that chose to ignore the suffering of aged and infirm veterans and the incompetence of the home’s leadership. But the Corner Office has always come with its share of trip wires that have to be navigated. This one came rather early on.
Shapiro wrote that everything he was able to amass in an investigation in which the department under Sudders took more than two months to hand over requested records indicated “that the Home is not functioning properly and that the leadership is actively failing.”
Shapiro collected a number of reports, some from an investigative arm of the state’s human resources department and finally some from HHS on Dec. 22. Together, he noted, the reports “paint a grim picture of the Home’s treatment of the veterans who live there and a concerning portrait of the superintendent’s leadership and the work environment at the Home.”
Johnson took over as superintendent in late 2020, at the height of the pandemic. He was placed on administrative leave in June 2022 for reasons Baker administration officials have never disclosed and was reinstated in October.
During his time as superintendent, a July 12 report noted, “veterans at the home had been found lying ‘soaked in urine and sitting in feces.’” An August report by someone Shapiro identified as a senior member of Sudders’s leadership team had reported on the deplorable conditions of at least a dozen rooms in the home’s “domiciliary” unit and “a great deal of turmoil and concerning employee morale issues” involving the superintendent.
Investigators also found Johnson “lacked candor” and didn’t answer questions truthfully or completely.
“A superintendent cannot effectively operate a Soldiers’ Home while lacking candor, professionalism, judgment and leadership skills,” Shapiro wrote.
He also raised issues about overtime pay collected by the home’s director of nursing, reportedly a Johnson ally who was promoted to the post in May. Shapiro quoted one oversight report that found it was “more likely than not” that the superintendent and director of nursing had violated the home’s overtime policy.
Come March 1, a host of governing reforms spurred by the Holyoke deaths and passed by the Legislature last summer become operative. A secretary of veterans affairs will become part of the governor’s cabinet, no longer answerable to the secretary of HHS. Under that law, “The secretary shall manage and control all state-operated veterans homes,” conduct inspections at least twice a year, and make sure both homes become duly licensed as long-term care facilities. The law also creates an independent Office of the Veteran Advocate “to ensure” that veterans in the state’s care “receive humane and dignified treatment at all times.”
Veterans in the care of the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home have already suffered too long because too many officials turned a blind eye to conditions there and the lack of leadership that exacerbated those conditions. Healey’s swift response bodes well for the future of those reforms — and for the future care of our state’s veterans.
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