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Mass. Wanted Someone With Health Care Experience To Oversee Soldiers' Homes. It Never Happened04:21
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A resident enters the headquarters of the Soldiers’ Home in Chelsea. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A resident enters the headquarters of the Soldiers’ Home in Chelsea. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

In 2016, the Massachusetts Legislature decided the Holyoke and Chelsea Soldiers’ Homes should be overseen by someone with at least five years of health care management experience, so lawmakers created a new position: an executive director of veterans’ homes and housing.

Four years later, that position remains unfilled. And now, as the coronavirus rages on, and the state-run veterans home in Holyoke experiences one of the deadliest outbreaks in the U.S., some Mass. lawmakers want to know why.

State Rep. Harold Naughton of Worcester, who helped write the 2016 bill and serves in the National Guard, is one of them. He says that while it’s impossible to know whether having someone in that job would have changed the course of the outbreak at the homes, “we passed a law and the law should be observed.”

The law calls for the executive director to be appointed by the Secretary of the Department of Veteran Services (DVS) and “oversee implementation and enforcement of laws,” advise DVS on matters related to veteran housing, “investigate and make recommendations on best practices for providing housing for veterans,” and provide an annual report on “the state of the soldiers’ homes.”

Asked about the vacant executive director position, a spokesperson for DVS said “the Secretary's office of the Department of Veterans’ Service performs the duties described in the law.”

DVS Secretary Francisco Urena, who was appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker in 2015, has no health care management experience, however. Urena is a retired marine who worked as the commissioner of veterans' services for the cities of Boston and Lawrence after retiring from the military. It’s unclear if anyone else in his office has health care experience.

“If they felt that the [secretary’s office] was accomplishing [the job], let’s see some evidence of that,” Naughton says. “I’d like to see them expand more on that — how was that being done?”

DVS did not respond to follow-up questions, but a spokesperson for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, which is now overseeing the pandemic response at the Soldiers Home, said in a statement that “the circumstances that led to the heartbreaking situation at Holyoke Soldiers' Home – including management and oversight of the facility – are the subject of a full and impartial investigation ordered by the Governor, [and] led by Attorney Mark Pearlstein.” WBUR also reached out to Kevin Jourdain, chairman of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home board of trustees, but he declined to comment.

Like Urena, the leader of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home — a retired marine named Bennett Walsh — was appointed by Baker and had no health care management experience. Walsh has been on paid administrative leave since late March when the severity of the home's outbreak first came to light.

On March 31, a cleaning crew suited up with protective gear enters the Soldiers' Home — a state-run long-term residence and health facility in Holyoke where more than a third of its veteran residents have died of COVID-19. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
On March 31, a cleaning crew suited up with protective gear enters the Soldiers' Home — a state-run long-term residence and health facility in Holyoke where more than a third of its veteran residents have died of COVID-19. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

To date, 74 veterans have died from the virus, while another 77 residents and 83 employees have tested positive. There are four separate state and federal investigations looking into how the Holyoke Soldiers' Home handled the outbreak. Walsh maintains he followed all of the proper reporting requirements, and says the state wouldn't provide the assistance he requested; staff, meanwhile, blame him and other managers for not properly isolating residents who tested positive for the coronavirus and for rationing personal protective equipment.

Nursing homes are skilled medical facilities, and with the exception of the state-run Soldiers’ Homes, are overseen and regulated by the Mass. Department of Health and Human Services. By reporting to the Department of Veteran Services, which then reports to HHS, the Soldiers’ Homes face an additional layer in the bureaucratic chain of command.

The 2016 law was an attempt to ensure that someone with more medical management experience was overseeing the facilities. It arose after the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services asked the University of Massachusetts to write a report on veteran housing in the state. The report -- The Massachusetts Veterans’ Long-Term Care and Housing Master Plan Commission — noted the Soldiers’ Homes are governed and overseen by separate boards, and could benefit from “consistent, executive-level vision and leadership.”

Among the policy suggestions in the report was the creation of “a leadership position within state government that is tasked specifically with policy development, administrative oversight, coordination and collaboration with the VA and other organizations in the state who are serving Veterans.”

“The successful candidate for this leadership position, and the staff that support it, should have ‘strong background and experience’ in nursing home management,” the report advises.

“As far as I know, there’s no [one with a] medical background or health care background [in DVS], so if the intent was to create a position for someone with a health care background to be able to weigh in … and they didn’t set [it] up, that’s something they’re going to have to answer for,” says state Rep. John Velis of Westfield.

Velis, an Army Reserve captain, has been outspoken about the pandemic response at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, and like Naughton, warns of “Monday morning quarterbacking.” But, he adds, “If you’re going to have this position, and the legislation was passed and signed by the governor, it begs the question of why it wasn’t created.”

This segment aired on May 12, 2020.

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