A congressional committee examining oversight of state veterans’ homes during the pandemic heard today from a former superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home—site of one of the deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks in the country.
Paul Barabani, who was superintendent for five years at the state-run long term care facility for veterans in western Massachusetts, called for a “strategic partnership” between the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and state veteran homes.
"Through a professional partnership and collaboration, we have the unique opportuninty to vastly improve the quality of veteran care for future generations of veterans," said Barabani.
Testifying remotely at the hearing by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health, Barabani said a partnership would allow staff at state-run homes to attend VA training and have access to online VA resources. He said there could be collaboration in areas including behavioral health, dietary services, and infection control.
"The Department of Veteran Affairs and the state veteran homes share a sacred and moral obligation to provide quality care for all veterans whether in a VA community living center or a state veteran home," said Barabani.
Barabani was superintendent at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home from 2011-2016 when he retired. He is now a member of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition, which consists of veterans’ advocates and residents’ family members. The organization is lobbying for more staffing, major renovations to the facility, and changes in oversight.
" It is the coalition's belief that the lack of sufficient staff and crowded rooms were root causes of the rapid spread of the virus resulting in the deaths of 76 American heros," said Barabani.
A report released last month by former federal prosecutor Mark Pearlstein, who investigated the Soldiers’ Home for Gov. Charlie Baker, blamed the outbreak on a series of “utterly baffling” decisions by the people in charge at the home.
Earlier this week, the state announced that a veteran at the Soldiers’ Home who had previously appeared to have recovered from COVID-19 had tested positive again. He was transferred to a hospital, the people who had been in contact with him are quarantined, and visitors are again not being allowed.
Barabani said he is convinced the Soldiers’ Home is not ready to handle a possible second surge of the coronavirus.
"They better call the National Guard now and put them on orders," Barabani said to the committee. "The problem with ( the Holyoke Soldiers's Home) is that it is going to be a challenge to get people to go work there now."
Congressman Richard Neal, the Springfield Democrat, introduced Barabani to the committee, describing him as an “undaunted advocate” for the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.
The VA employs a contractor to conduct annual inspections of state-owned soldiers’ homes, but has no direct role in how the places operate.
Subcommittee Chairwoman Julia Brownley, a Democrat from California, called the federal oversight of the state homes “loose.”
U.S. Rep. Neal Dunn of Florida, the ranking Republican member of the subcommittee, said the autonomy of the states must be respected.