Soldiers’ Home early retirements costly

Many of the problems can be traced to 2015 initiative

IN A PRESS CONFERENCE last Wednesday on the scathing report by an independent investigator into the COVID-related deaths of 76 veterans at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, Gov. Charlie Baker lamented that “veterans who deserve the best from state government got exactly the opposite. And there’s no excuse or plausible explanation for that.”

House Speaker Robert DeLeo also found the tragedy unfathomable and called for an investigation by a special legislative oversight committee: “We need the answers to many more questions, starting with why this tragedy was able to occur.”

Quite a few of those answers, according to the author of the report, have to do with chronic understaffing at the Soldiers’ Home, a situation that worsened dramatically in 2015, when, at the governor’s request, the Legislature passed an early retirement incentive program. According to the report, the retirements that followed had “a profound and lasting effect on the Soldiers’ Home’s nursing staff….Numerous staff members report that the loss of experienced nurses as a result of the [early retirement incentive program] continues to present substantial challenges to the mission of the Soldiers’ Home today.”  

The Baker administration had proposed the retirement incentive plan early in 2015 as a way to close a budget gap of about $1.5 billion without raising taxes or drawing on the state’s rainy day fund. Administration and Finance Secretary Kristen Lepore promised that the program would not only result in savings but would also “bring some efficiency to state government.”

Her optimistic view was not shared by the superintendent of the Soldiers’ Home, who warned lawmakers that the proposal would harm the home’s ability to achieve its mission.  Some legislators, notably the late senator Kenneth Donnelly, shared his skepticism, and questioned Lepore how agencies experiencing significant staffing losses could be able to deliver the same services, when we don’t even “know what services people won’t have provided to them.” Her response: “I didn’t say they wouldn’t have their services. You said that.”

Despite the concerns of Donnelly and some other legislators, the retirement incentive bill passed and went to the governor for his signature in early May, and he dismissed their worries at the signing ceremony. “We’re going to make sure that the executive side of government continues to perform,” he said. Speaker DeLeo, in attendance at that ceremony, was also optimistic. “It will work out fine,” he said.

Seven months later, at the end of 2015, 46 staff members, including approximately 30 nurses, the chief nursing officer, and the chief social worker, had taken advantage of the retirement incentive plan. The deputy superintendent at the facility and the chairman of the Soldiers’ Home’s board of trustees had resigned, and the superintendent had given notice that he would resign the next month, telling Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs Francisco Urena that the staffing shortages had made it untenable for him to continue. “You’ve given me an impossible mission and failed to provide me with the support I need,” he said. “It is time for me to move on.”  

The next superintendent, who was appointed in early 2016 to fill the leadership vacuum at Holyoke on a temporary basis, produced a transition memo for her successor that said staffing issues are an area of concern. She highlighted in particular the disruptions that the early retirement incentive plan had caused. She said there had not been “sufficient planning to deploy” the plan.

That would seem to be a plausible explanation for part of the Holyoke catastrophe, but certainly, as the governor said on Wednesday, not an excuse.

Margaret Monsell, a former assistant attorney general and former general counsel to the state Senate Committee on Ways and Means, is an attorney practicing in the Boston area.