Spotlight on Urena in Soldiers’ Home scandal

Disabled vets group says Baker secretary should be fired

THE SCANDAL AT THE Holyoke Soldiers’ Home is putting a spotlight on Secretary of Veterans’ Services Francisco Urena, with one veteran’s organization calling for his resignation – a development that is bringing the scandal closer to Gov. Charlie Baker.

Thursday morning, Daniel Stack, department adjutant for the Massachusetts chapter of Disabled American Veterans, told CommonWealth that Urena should be fired. “He should be relieved of command at this point in time,” Stack said.

As of Wednesday, 76 veterans had died who tested positive for COVID-19 at the state-run soldiers’ home and another 75 were infected. Four investigations are ongoing.

Baker and Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders have said they found out about the outbreak Sunday evening, March 29, and by Monday had put Superintendent Bennett Walsh on leave and brought in a team of medical experts and the National Guard to take over operations.

New documents released Tuesday by Walsh’s attorney do not answer the most important questions: What went wrong that allowed the virus to spread? What can be changed? They also do not address whether Walsh mismanaged the home, whether the budget and staffing were adequate, or whether infection control protocols were in place and followed.

But they do add complexity to the question of who knew what when – and why Baker and Sudders didn’t know about the outbreak earlier. The documents show Walsh kept Urena (Baker’s cabinet secretary) and Health and Human Services Deputy Secretary Dan Tsai (Sudders’ number two) updated about the outbreak from March 22, the day after the first case was confirmed, through the day the first death was confirmed, March 27. In fact, Walsh asked state officials for help.

Urena, a US Marine Corps veteran who was previously in charge of veterans’ services for Boston and Lawrence, has already come under scrutiny.

WBUR reported earlier this month that the Legislature in 2016 created a new position to provide oversight of the Holyoke and Chelsea Soldiers’ Homes by someone with experience in health care management – which Urena does not have – and lawmakers were questioning why that position was never filled.

The Massachusetts chapter of Disabled American Veterans previously called for Urena to be put on leave during the investigations, but Stack said the new revelations confirm that Urena showed a lack of leadership. “Secretary Urena on day one should have contacted the governor directly to let him know what was happening so the governor could have taken appropriate action as needed, including bringing in the National Guard,” Stack said.

Baker refused to comment on the documents Wednesday, saying he was waiting for the conclusion of an investigation he commissioned by attorney Mark Perlstein, which he said should be completed soon. “There’s a lot of back and forth, which is not surprising given the significance of what happened there, but I’m waiting for Mark’s report,” Baker said.

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Holyoke lawmakers have been critical, but cautious, as they await the investigations’ conclusions.

Rep. Aaron Vega, a Holyoke Democrat, told CommonWealth he was concerned about the administration’s approach to the Soldiers’ Home before the pandemic. For years, Vega said, Soldiers’ Home leaders would brief legislators about budget and staffing problems. Under Urena and Walsh, Vega said, lawmakers were simply told the budget was sufficient. Vega worried about an increased reliance on temporary staff, and lack of movement on implementing electronic medical records. “It just seems like there’s been a lack of communication across the board, it’s hard to say who communicated with who,” Vega said.

Rep. John Velis, a Democrat who will be sworn in Thursday as Holyoke’s state senator, said the new revelations “caused eyebrows to be raised.” Velis said he is anxious for the investigations to wrap up to get a holistic view of what happened. But he said it is significant that “in some form, communication was sent upstairs that we have a problem here and we need help.” Velis said a legislative inquiry may be necessary.