Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday signed a $400 million spending bill to finance construction of a new Holyoke Soldiers’ Home to replace the facility that was the site of one of the deadliest coronavirus outbreaks at a long-term care facility in the nation.
The new facility would replace a building that dates to the 1950s, which some said contributed to the deaths last spring of 76 veteran residents who contracted COVID-19, Masslive.com reported. A 77th resident died of the disease in December.
“As you know, it is imperative that the reconstruction of a Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke take place as soon as possible. Massachusetts veterans need and deserve a home that fully provides for their health, safety and comfort,” Baker wrote.
Baker vetoed language designed to favor union contractors.
“This requirement threatens the viability of this project by limiting fair competition and disproportionately reducing opportunities for minority, women and veteran-owned businesses,” the veto letter reads. “It will also raise the overall cost of the project precipitously and may result in a labor shortage, putting the project and project timeline in jeopardy.”
Legislators, who also added $200 million in funding for long-term care for veterans across the state, will have an opportunity to override Baker’s veto.
The new facility, scheduled for completion in 2026, would be an eight-story building with 235 beds, mostly private rooms and bathrooms, more open spaces, an adult day health center and other upgrades.
The bill was signed a day after a legislative oversight committee released a report that found a “crisis of leadership” at the home that preceded the pandemic by years.
The committee found that “the causes were both immediate, including inexplicable decisions made by the home’s leadership in the days and weeks preceding the outbreak, and long-standing, including systemic issues that left the home mismanaged, understaffed, lacking sufficient oversight, and ill-equipped" to protect residents.
The Holyoke Soldiers' Home Coalition, a group of residents' family members and others, issued a statement Tuesday thanking Baker for signing the bill.
“Today’s bond bill signature achieves our most important mission, and all citizens of our Commonwealth should be proud of this day," the statement said.
As for the committee's report, the coalition said it agreed that a “confusing command-and-control reporting structure contributed to a breakdown in communication and certainly contributed to poor response times during the pandemic, which exacerbated the outbreak and contributed to loss of life."
The deaths led to criminal charges against two top former administrators and the resignation of the state veterans affairs secretary.
An independent investigation found that management made “baffling” decisions that likely contributed to the death toll.
Facility leadership countered that requests for help from the state were rejected.