Veterans tell Baker: Listen to us

Lots of pushback on fast-tracking Baker’s veterans’ home bill

A DAY AFTER independent investigator Mark Pearlstein released his scathing report on what went wrong with the coronavirus outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, Gov. Charlie Baker released a bill that would implement several reforms recommended by the report.

These include things like hiring a health care leader to advise the secretary of veterans’ services, changing the composition of the facility’s board of trustees, implementing a permanent staffing schedule, implementing electronic medical records, improving training, and enhancing inspections.

But now veterans are telling Baker: Not so fast.

Advocates at a public hearing this week asked lawmakers to delay acting on the bill. The main reason is that veterans do not feel like they’ve been heard.

In written testimony obtained by CommonWealth, former deputy superintendent John Paradis, who resigned from his job at the home in 2015, said he and a coalition of concerned veterans oppose the bill because of the lack of outreach by the Baker administration.

“We believe there must be an active outreach effort by this committee to receive feedback on this bill and on the best path forward for the Soldiers’ Home in a way that is inclusive and takes into consideration the input and views of those who know the Home the best – the staff, to include their union representation; the Veteran residents and their family members who are their health care proxies; and we as Veterans who may someday require long-term care as a resident at the Soldiers’ Home,” Paradis said.

Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, a Northampton Democrat, said similarly that she is happy the Legislature created its own oversight commission to examine the failures at the home and make recommendations, because the administration’s response was not inclusive enough. “I put my trust in you to include, in that process, the residents, their families, and the staff of the Holyoke Soldiers home because as a Western Mass native, I want to stress that those voices do not feel like they were included in crafting the legislation before you today,” Sabadosa told members of the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs.

Eric Segundo, past state commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars in Massachusetts, said Baker’s bill “clearly needs much more examination and demands much greater discussion with Veteran groups across the state.”

Others – including former Holyoke Soldiers’ Home superintendent Paul Barabani, who retired in January 2016, and Delfo Barabani, president of a Western Massachusetts chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America — asked for a delay until multiple additional investigations have been completed, including the work of the legislative oversight committee. “The reports of the other investigations and the input from groups such as the Holyoke Soldiers Home Coalition, could contain valuable insights, leading to a better, more comprehensive result,” Delfo Barabani said.

The State House News Service reported that committee members do not appear to be rushing to pass the bill before the scheduled end of legislative sessions on July 31. Committee House chair Linda Dean Campbell, who is also co-chairing the legislative committee investigating the Soldiers’ Home, said, “Our goal is to take our time and get this right.”

Meet the Author

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.

On Tuesday, the Soldiers’ Home board of trustees took its own step toward reforms, voting to endorse numerous changes to the home’s management in light of Pearlstein’s report.

MassLive reported that these include ending the Soldiers’ Home exemption from licensing inspections, hiring an occupational nurse to ensure proper staffing levels, creating an electronic record-keeping system, and requiring that either the superintendent or deputy superintendent hold a license to be a nursing home administrator.

No doubt, the Baker administration wanted to release the bill quickly to show it was taking Pearlstein’s report seriously. But next time, state officials may want to listen before they leap.