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Feds launch probe of Soldiers’ Home 

  • An ambulance arrives at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke on Tuesday, March 31. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • The entrance to the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke. Photographed on Tuesday, March 31. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/10/2020 4:11:53 PM

HOLYOKE — Federal prosecutors are opening a civil rights investigation into the Soldiers’ Home amid a deadly coronavirus outbreak in the facility.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts and the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division announced they’ve opened an investigation on Friday, a day after the state said that 32 residents have died at the Soldiers’ Home since March 25. Of those 32 deaths, 28 tested positive for COVID-19. 

In its statement, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said the investigation will be conducted under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, “which gives the department the authority to investigate violations of the U.S. Constitution and federal law that result from a ‘pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of such rights’ in state-run institutions, including nursing facilities. 

“We will aggressively investigate recent events at the Home and, as needed, require the Commonwealth to adopt reforms to ensure patient safety in the future,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said in a statement. “My condolences to the families of those veterans who died while in the Home’s care; we will get to the bottom of what happened here.”

The federal investigation will be separate from other investigations that have been announced after news of the deaths within the Soldiers’ Home broke on March 30. Since then, Gov. Charlie Baker has hired a former federal prosecutor to conduct an independent investigation, Attorney General Maura Healey has launched a probe and state lawmakers have said they plan to look into what caused the crisis.

According to numbers released by the state Thursday afternoon, 28 veterans have died after testing positive for COVID-19, with another four who died testing negative. State officials said 69 veteran residents have tested positive at the facility, as have 68 employees.

The state suspended Superintendent Bennett Walsh on March 30, setting up a clinical command structure under the leadership of Val Liptak, the CEO of Western Massachusetts Hospital in Westfield. 

Baker has said he didn’t know about the crisis until the evening of March 29, but Walsh said Thursday that he had kept state officials apprised of the situation. Walsh alleged that on March 27 he asked the state to send the National Guard for staffing assistance and that his request was denied.

Federal prosecutors will now be looking into the situation. The Civil Rights Unit at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section will be jointly investigating the matter.

“Our hearts go out to the families of the veterans who passed away,” Eric Dreiband, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, said in a statement. “We owe it to the veterans, their families, and the public to investigate the facts, determine what happened, ensure compliance with the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, and protect those veterans who continue to reside at the Soldiers’ Home.”

This is a breaking news story and will be updated.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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