Walsh is fall guy, but it goes way beyond him
Soldiers’ Home mismanagement runs broad, deep
IN HIS 174-PAGE REPORT on the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, Mark Pearlstein and his team paint a portrait of a long-term care facility for veterans that was managed poorly, overseen improperly, and largely overlooked by the higher-ups in state government, up to and including Gov. Charlie Baker.
Bennett Walsh, the former superintendent, is likely going to take the fall for most of what went wrong at the Soldiers’ Home, including the deaths of 76 veterans. But in many respects he is emblematic of a system in state government that often rewards people not for the skills they bring to a job but where they come from.
Walsh was a distinguished military veteran from a politically connected family in Springfield. His mother is a Springfield city councilor and his father the city’s former veterans services director. His uncle, and currently his lawyer, is the former district attorney for Hampden County, where Holyoke is located.
In 2016, Walsh, after a 24-year career in the military, was back in Massachusetts, talking to people about career opportunities, and preparing to apply for a job in security at the MGM Resorts casino in Springfield. He learned the superintendent’s position at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home was open. He had a cup of coffee with John Velis, who at the time was a state rep from Westfield and is now a state senator. The job description for the superintendent’s job indicated the ideal candidate would have a background in operating a “residential/outpatient facility,” but Velis, who said he had never met Walsh before, informed him that the previous two superintendents didn’t have that type of background. (CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said Velis was a state rep from Springfield.)
Crotty, according to the Pearlstein report, said Walsh viewed himself as the “outside man” for the Soldiers’ Home while Crotty was the “inside man,” an arrangement that worked relatively well until Crotty became fed up with Walsh’s bullying management style and quit in 2019. He was never replaced.
The report describes Walsh as a polarizing figure, popular with veterans and their families but not liked well by his staff. Some staff members grumbled that they had to teach him basic health care concepts. Others disliked his personal style, his poor communication skills, and the “culture of retaliation” he cultivated.
Francisco Urena, the secretary of veterans services, told Pearlstein’s team there were a number of red flags on Walsh. High staff turnover was one. Urena also made an unannounced visit to the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home during Walsh’s first year on the job, which prompted Walsh to phone Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders demanding that Urena would have to seek permission for future visits. After an employee complaint, an executive coach was hired to work with Walsh on anger management issues. The initial six-month contract with the executive coach was extended when another employee raised concerns about Walsh’s anger.
Walsh’s top staff, the people he surrounded himself with, were largely panned in the Pearlstein report. His chief nursing officer, Vanessa Lauziere, came aboard in late 2019 and made the fatal decision to consolidate two dementia units into one, in the process combining residents infected with COVID-19 with those who weren’t. Lauziere has resigned.
The facility’s clinical director, Dr. David Clinton, told Pearlstein’s team he didn’t agree with Lauziere’s decision on merging the two units, but the report suggests that claim was not credible. The report also notes that Clinton was being paid $116,000 a year and working only 20 hours a week. Clinton recently resigned his post and Celeste Surreira, the assistant director of nursing, was placed on administrative leave.
Baker, during a State House press conference, said he is moving to terminate Walsh, who has been on administrative leave since March 30. Baker said Urena was asked to resign on Tuesday because of his agency’s failure to adequately monitor and provide oversight of the Soldiers’ Home.
As for Baker himself, he is listed in the report as having been interviewed but there is no information provided on what he was asked and how he responded. Pearlstein did say that he concluded Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito first learned of the rising death toll at the Soldiers’ Home on Sunday, March 29.During his press conference, Baker said his administration takes responsibility for what happened at the Soldiers’ Home, but seemed to put most of the oversight blame on Urena’s office.
Baker said he would like to meet personally with the families of the veterans at the facility to apologize and listen to their concerns. He said he also intends to follow all the recommendations in Pearlstein’s report, including making the home subject to licensing and inspection requirements required of other long-term care facilities, and to launch additional initiatives, including investments in the home itself and an overhaul of the facility’s governance structure.