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Former Soldiers’ Home leaders detail history of staffing, funding woes

  • Paul Barabani, former superintendent of the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, testifies Thursday before a joint oversight committee of the state Legislature about the COVID-19 outbreak at the home that led to the deaths of at least 76 veteran residents. SCREENSHOT/STATE LEGISLATURE

  • An ambulance arrives at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke in March. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/30/2020 3:38:11 PM

BOSTON — When Paul Barabani was a kid in the 1950s, he remembered family trips to the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke. His dad would bring 16 mm film to show movies and his mom would serve ice cream to the veterans.

Barabani’s father, World War II veteran Delfo “Del” Barabani, was very familiar with the Soldiers’ Home. He was at the dedication of the facility in 1952 and ultimately took his last breath as a resident at the home in 2015. So when the superintendent position opened in 2010 and Barabani wanted to apply, he naturally told his father.

“I have to be honest with you that he advised me not to apply for the position,” Barabani told state lawmakers on Thursday. “He probably knew more than I did about the real goings on.”

Speaking to the Legislature’s joint oversight committee that is investigating this year’s COVID-19 outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home, Barabani described what was really going on during his tenure as superintendent from 2011 to 2015, including state leaders’ alleged indifference to serious problems that were growing inside the facility.

Barabani said he encountered drastic understaffing that jeopardized patient care when he became superintendent in 2011. His superiors in state government, however, reprimanded him for speaking out about staffing levels, demanding loyalty to the administration instead, he said.

When Gov. Charlie Baker took office in 2015, he said his testimony to state lawmakers had to be pre-approved by Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders and Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs Francisco Urena.

“I had been given a mission,” said Barabani, who ultimately retired early in December 2015 in protest at understaffing at the Soldiers’ Home. “I hadn’t been given the resources to accomplish that mission.”

Thursday’s hearing was the fourth in a series of fact-finding forums state lawmakers have held this week and last. Families and staff have told horrific stories of the outbreak, which contributed to the deaths of at least 76 veterans and infected at least 85 employees in March, April and May. Some identified missteps made by Soldiers’ Home leadership, including former Superintendent Bennett Walsh and former Medical Director David Clinton, who both face criminal neglect charges related to their roles during the outbreak.

Don’t rock the boat

Testimony during previous hearings frequently returned to inadequate staffing at the facility, but Thursday’s hearing was the first to focus on what state leaders failed to do about the issue. Barabani said that in December 2014, the secretary of health and human services reprimanded him for discussing understaffing in front of state lawmakers. And when Baker took office the following month, things did not improve.

In April of that year, Barabani testified in front of state lawmakers about Baker’s early retirement incentive program, or ERIP, which was projected to strip the Soldiers’ Home of 50 employees — a huge gap to fill at a facility Barabani said was already short-staffed.

Barabani said Sudders and Urena had to approve his testimony, which could only express appreciation for the appropriation Baker gave the home. But that day, a lawmaker asked him about the impact of ERIP at the home.

“We will not be able to conduct our mission of providing care with honor and dignity,” Barabani recalled telling that lawmaker. He said he then went over to Sudders, introduced himself for the first time and asked for her support to adequately fund the home. “That was my first meeting with Secretary Sudders. It lasted about 30 seconds. That was my last meeting with Secretary Sudders.”

Appropriate funding was never provided, Barabani said. Instead, he noted, state officials required him to remove data about the Soldiers’ Home’s staffing problem from its agency review “because it was too soon in the administration that they didn’t want that information to go to the governor.”

Barabani spoke of the desperation that overwhelmed staff felt inside the home. He said there were not enough direct-care workers to help veteran residents with basic tasks — bathing, dressing, moving, using the toilet — that so many need help with. That led to increased bedsores as well as weight loss for those who didn’t have the help they needed to eat.

“I’m a military guy. … I did eight years enlisted time, so I have an appreciation for the people who really get the job done as opposed to those who make demands that really can’t be met,” Barabani said.

He paused to control his emotions as he praised the nurses and assistants who testified Tuesday about years of thin staffing and its impacts on morale and patient care.

Barabani said that in 2015, he and the facility’s staff made a presentation to Urena — who resigned in the wake of the outbreak — about the lack of resources. He said Urena spent most of the meeting looking at his phone, not even making eye contact with the workers in front of him, who felt insulted. As late as 2019, all the state had committed to do was study the problem further, he said.

‘Toxic culture’

Those thoughts were echoed by John Paradis, a local veterans advocate who served as Barabani’s deputy superintendent from 2013 until both men left their jobs in 2015. In his testimony, he said nurse leaders often believe staffing levels are dictated by people in corporate offices with no knowledge of bedside care and the hours of that care that patients require.

“In my view, in the case of the Soldiers’ Home, this is certainly true,” Paradis said. “If we continue to ignore the problem, our elder veterans won’t receive the care they have earned and deserve.”

Paradis said that when he began working for Barabani, he was energized behind the vision the two shared for a better Soldiers’ Home. But just a few years later, he said, he left the job fearful that veterans’ lives were being put in jeopardy and demoralized by what he described as a “toxic culture in our state government.”

“It’s a culture that doesn’t embrace transparency, that doesn’t support employees when they have something to say, and that certainly discourages dissent or the ability to speak without fear of retaliation,” he said. “It pains me to hear comments from employees who say they do not feel safe in identifying problems or with reporting concerns, but it is not surprising.”

The two former leaders of the Soldiers’ Home implored lawmakers to address the issue of staffing immediately. Barabani highlighted the funding disparities between the Soldiers’ Home in Chelsea and the home in Holyoke, which he said has patients with more complex needs.

Barabani and Paradis also took issue with a Baker-commissioned investigation into the outbreak that former federal prosecutor Mark Pearlstein conducted — a report that has shaped conversation about the outbreak after it was released in June.

Barabani said Pearlstein cut short a conversation with him and made many errors in the report, both in conveying Barabani’s testimony and experience but also in using past studies that present an inaccurately rosy picture of staffing in the home.

“They looked at what they wanted to,” Barabani said.

“It was deliberately looking to point fingers at individuals,” Paradis added, “rather than wider, broader systemic changes.”

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



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