Holyoke Soldiers’ Home trustees mull best version of ‘reimagined’ facility post-COVID-19 crisis; indicted staffers discussed privately

HOLYOKE — If listeners to a telephonic Holyoke Soldiers’ Home board of trustees meeting Wednesday hoped for any public insights into the recent indictments of two of the facility’s top staff, they were disappointed.

But, in fairness, Chairman Kevin Jourdain was candid about it.

“I just don’t want to waste anybody’s time. If you’re hoping you’re going to listen for an hour, hoping you’re going hear something, perhaps of Mr. Walsh, you’ll be disappointed,” he said.

Superintendent Bennett Walsh and former Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Clinton were indicted by a grand jury Sept. 22, accused of criminal neglect in connection with the COVID-19 crisis that left 76 veterans dead.

Clinton resigned June 24 in the wake of an independent report that heaped blame on the top staff for failing to stem the spread of the virus. Walsh had been suspended since March 30. The state sent in an emergency response team and the Baker administration later fired Walsh. Attorneys for Walsh successfully challenged the firing in court, and his ultimate professional fate is now back in the hands of the trustees.

During previous interviews, Jourdain said the trustees would discuss the matter privately with the facility’s attorney in executive session on Wednesday night and did not plan to reemerge in public session.

Six trustees participated in the meeting, when they voted to approve appointments and reappointments of medical staff — including a new medical director, Dr. Thomas Higgins, to replace Clinton. The lion’s share of the public discussion focused on the trustees’ recommendation for a “reimagined” Soldiers’ Home in the wake of the tragedy. They shared their thoughts with Scott Parker, principal of design firm Payette, who said the design team was about two-thirds of the way through the “Rapid Planning Phase.”

Gov. Charlie Baker set an accelerated capital improvement plan in motion as part of his pledged reforms at the long-term care facility for veterans. The state must submit a grant proposal to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in a bid for funding by April 15, 2021.

“If we miss the deadline this April 15 we’ll have to wait until the next year’s deadline,” Parker said. “And if we make that deadline, it’ll trip some other deadlines we’ll want to hit.”

The spate of deaths at the Soldiers’ Home renewed longstanding calls for a refurbished facility and more staff and funding. The impact of COVID-19 on the home made the state and the nation sit up and take notice.

Among the trustees’ suggestions to Parker were expanded living space, private bathrooms and showers, an adult day health center, on-site behavioral health services for veterans returning from battle with post-traumatic stress disorder, and more beds for female veterans.

Chris Dupont, a veteran and a trustee from Belchertown, said an adult day health care program would have immensely helped his own parents as his father languished on a waiting list to get a bed at the Soldiers’ Home. He died there nearly a year later, Dupont said.

“He lived there four days shy of a year. Leading up to his wait time to get into the home, I saw the drain it had on my mother. I personally saw how difficult it was for her. She really had no respite,” Dupont said. “If there was an adult day health care, he could have participated in that and possibility have spent more time at home.”