Mass. Inspector General releases report on Holyoke Soldiers’ Home

Outside of the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, MA
Outside of the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, MA(Western Mass News)
Published: Apr. 29, 2022 at 1:02 PM EDT
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HOLYOKE, MA (WGGB/WSHM) - State officials have released a report into the management and oversight of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.

The 91-page report from the office of Massachusetts Inspector General Glenn Cuhna comes following an investigation that began in 2019 after their office received an anonymous complaint over several concerns about then-Superintendent Bennett Walsh.

According to the state, the investigation, which covered the time period of May 2016 and February 2020, “identified critical shortcomings in the management of the Home as well as concerns regarding the supervision of Superintendent Walsh.”

The report found:

  • Officials - including the governor, secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, and the Soldiers’ Home Board of Trustees - didn’t follow a statute that give the board the power to appoint Walsh. Instead, the board recommended three candidates, the secretary of Health and Human Services only met with Walsh, and the governor appointed Walsh as superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.
  • Walsh reportedly did not have and did not develop the leadership capacity or temparament to serve as superitendent. The inspector general report indicated that Walsh allegedly created an “unprofessional and negative work environment, retaliated against employees he deemed disloyal, demonstrated a lack of engagement in the Home’s operations and circumvented his chain of command.”
  • The state’s Department of Veterans’ Services and Executive Office of Health and Human Services failed to adequately address complaints from senior managers and other staff at the Soldiers’ Home. In particular, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services reportedly failed to recognize recurring complaints that Walsh didn’t have leadership skills or the temperament to run the facility.
  • Two investigations into Walsh were conducted by the Executive Office of Health and Human Services during that nearly-four year period, but the inspector general said that the investigations were flawed, biased in Walsh’s favor, and were unnecessarily restricted in scope.

The office of the Inspector General noted that this report does not examine the events at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home during the COVID-19 pandemic as it “would have fallen outside the Office’s mandate and expertise.” Instead, those investigations were conducted by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office and the U.S. Attorney’s office for Massachusetts.

The report also made several recommendations including that the Department of Veterans’ Services become an cabinet-level secretariat, the Soldiers’ Home superitendents meet certain requirements, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health should have the authority and funding to provide clinical oversight and support to the facility, and establish an ombudsman and hotline for residents, staff, relatives, and concerned citizens to confidentially report concerns.

The office of the Inspector General said that this report is also one piece of a larger effort to address issues related to both Soldiers’ Homes in Chelsea and Holyoke. The office has reached out to legislators, who have already adopted several recommendations, including oversight changes and management of the facilities and provide for accountability and appropriate supervision of the superintendents.

Another thing discussed in the report is having more medical people on the ground and recommended that Mass. DPH have a more robust role at the home.

We caught up with State Senator John Velis, who has been very vocal about the issues at the home, to get his thoughts on the report. He told us this report identified many of the issues that he and his team have put forth in the Senate bill and that this is just another piece in the puzzle to ensuring this never happens again.

“The inspector general has been intimately involved. We knew there were going to be some really tough things in there. You know, I’m not going to lie to you. Reading it this morning or when it came out this afternoon, there were some tough things. Anytime we go into those facts about what those veterans and those families had to go through, it’s tough, but the good news is that this really was the last investigation and the real good news is that much of it we identified,” Velis explained.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services said:

“The Baker-Polito Administration commissioned an independent report by Attorney Mark Pearlstein to investigate the circumstances that led to the tragedy at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke and multiple investigations, including one by the Legislature and another by the Attorney General, reached many of the same conclusions, that failures by Bennett Walsh and senior medical team members led to the outbreak. The Administration is reviewing the report from the Inspector General, which identified several recommendations that have already been addressed by the Department of Veterans’ Services and the Soldiers’ Home. The Administration filed legislation almost two years ago to strengthen oversight of the soldiers’ homes and looks forward to addressing these issues with the Legislature.”

Attorney Michael O. Jennings, who represents Walsh, said in a statement:

“We’re currently solely focused on our response to the Attorney General’s appeal of the Superior Court’s well-reasoned opinion dismissing all criminal charges against Mr. Walsh.

We have no comment at this time relating to the newly released Inspector General’s Investigation report which has no relevance to our work responding to that appeal.”

A spokesperson for the office of Mass. Attorney General Maura Healey said in a statement:

“Today’s report sheds an important light on the reforms that are sorely needed at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. Massachusetts owes it to our veterans to ensure that they can receive high-quality care in a safe environment. Our office will continue to push for accountability on behalf of the loved ones who lost family members to past failures at the Home.”

Western Mass News will continue to follow this story and will have more information as it becomes available.