The Massachusetts House voted Thursday to approve a $400 million bond bill to pay for a new facility to replace the existing Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, the site of one of the nation's deadliest coronavirus outbreaks at a long-term care facility.
The unanimous vote comes as the state is still grappling with the fallout from the deaths in spring 2020 of 76 residents who had COVID-19. A 77th resident died of the disease in December.
An investigation by a former federal prosecutor hired by Gov. Charlie Baker found that management at the home made several “utterly baffling” decisions that allowed the virus to run rampant.
Among them was a decision prompted by staffing shortages to combine two locked dementia units, both of which already housed some residents with the virus.
The bill authorizes the state to issue $400 million bonds to pay for what supporters say is a long overdue, state-of-the-art facility.
The state is expected to get a 65% federal reimbursement for the project, leaving $140 million to be paid by the state over the life of the bond, Democrat state Rep. Danielle Gregoire said during Thursday’s debate.
An initial application is due to the federal government Thursday with the full application to be submitted on August 1.
Gregoire said it was critical to pass the bill as quickly as possible to give the state time to complete the design of the new facility.
Construction is slated to happen between the summer of 2022 and the summer of 2026. The move into the new building will occur in the fall of 2026 with the demolition of the existing building following the move into the new building.
“There are over 305,000 veterans currently across our commonwealth,” Gregoire said. “We owe all of these men and women as well as those who come after them a state of the art facility that provides world-class care.”
Rep. Joseph Wager said the tragedy, which he said claimed the lives of nearly a third of the home’s residents, exposed critical fault lines such as staffing levels, protocols related to infectious disease and an outdated facility that was ill-equipped to defend against a fast moving and deadly virus.
“Words cannot and do not adequately define or measure such an unimaginable loss of so many lives,” the Democrat said. “Nor can words describe the grief and loss experienced by the families of those who died as well as those who provided 24 hour care for the home’s resident veterans."
Bennett Walsh, the superintendent of the 240-bed, state-run facility at the time of the deaths was first suspended and later resigned.
Walsh and the home’s former medical director have pleaded not guilty to criminal negligence charges connected to the deaths.
A search committee earlier this month selected the administrator of the Idaho State Veterans Home, Rick Holloway, to be the next superintendent of the Holyoke home.
Holloway had to deal with a coronavirus outbreak at the Boise, Idaho, facility last fall in which 56 residents tested positive and nine died, he said.
The bond bill now heads to the Massachusetts Senate, which is also expected to pass the measure.