At the first hearing on Gov. Baker's Holyoke Soldiers' Home reform bill Tuesday, committee members got an earful of criticism from veterans and lawmakers who said the bill would add to bureaucracy and fail to fix core deficiencies at the commonwealth's soldiers' homes.
A handful of witnesses testified Tuesday before the Massachusetts joint veterans and federal affairs committee, most asking the committee to delay action on the reform bill Baker filed in June to improve operations and oversight of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home. At least 76 veterans at the soldiers' home have died from COVID-19. The speakers said the bill does not go far enough and requested the delay until lawmakers can get input from veterans, health officials and the public. Some participants spoke virtually and others spoke in-person, with masks and abiding by social distancing rules.
Massachusetts Health and Human Service Secretary Mary Lou Sudders said the governor's bill was built around recommendations made as a result of an independent investigation, which Baker ordered, into the deaths at the home. Among other changes, the recommendations include adding two members with experience in clinical or health care administration to the state's veterans' homes' boards of trustees, requires the Holyoke facility's superintendent to report to the secretary of veteran services and stipulates that the Department of Public Health will inspect the facilities at least once a year.
Retired U.S. Airforce Lt. Colonel John Paradis, a former deputy superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, told lawmakers he thinks Baker's bill doesn't do enough to address the conditions that prompted him to resign in 2015. Paradis said needed reforms missing from Baker's bill include providing individual rooms for each veteran and placing supervision of the home under the Department of Public Health.
"I resigned in 2015 as the deputy superintendent of the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke because of the failure of the commonwealth to truly understand the human, and physical and financial resources necessary to accomplish our mission to provide the best possible care to our veterans with honor and dignity," he said.
State Rep. Lindsey Sabadosa of Northampton, who testified on behalf of her constituents, said veterans' families feel left out of the reform process.
"The nearly 80 deaths at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home is personal and getting answers is not easy,” Sabadosa said. “Getting responses for constituents is not easy. Though that's improved somewhat, getting answers is still difficult and I find that unacceptable."
Several leaders of veterans' groups around the state also gave testimony opposing the governor’s bill. Deb Olson, senior commander of Massachusetts Disabled Veterans, said the regulations outlined in the bill would only increase the bureaucracy between the soldiers' homes and the governor.
"For years, the DMV has advocated for change within the system," Olson said, "and we are disheartened that through our knowledge, no veterans service organizations were consulted prior to this legislation being filed."
Paul Barabani, retired colonel of the Army National Guard who served five years as superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home before retiring in January 2016, said his appeals to add staff and address room sizes and safety violations contributed to his decision to retire.
“I did not want to be part of an administration that would turn a blind eye to veterans’ safety and feared that when an adverse event occurred, I would be the scapegoat for their flawed decisions,” Barabani said. “Today, I believe that the failure to fund the renovation of the home and to provide additional staffing in 2013 and every year since was central to the events of March of 2020.”
Rep. Linda Dean Cambell, who co-chaired the virtual hearing, told the audience that a special committee appointed by the legislature will “look at all aspects of the Holyoke tragedy with the purpose of bringing forth very purposeful legislation.”
Campbell said 17 committee members will have subpoena power to examine the issues at the soldiers' home with the goal of bringing about changes. The hearing adjourned without another scheduled hearing discussed.
This article has been updated to reflect that U.S. Airforce Lt. Colonel John Paradis is retired.