Lawyers representing the families that filed a class-action lawsuit against the state in the wake of the deaths of 84 veterans at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in the spring of 2020 — and family members themselves — contend that the state’s willingness to pay $56 million to those families is an admission that this tragedy, one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks, was preventable and never should have happened.
And they are right in that assessment. While COVID presented a stern challenge to every long-term facility in the country, and deaths were recorded at most all of them, what happened at the Soldiers’ Home was different. What happened there was negligence — on many, many levels.
The 29-page lawsuit charged that the state “made a promise to its citizen-soldiers” to care for them after they served their country but failed to stem the spread of COVID-19 through the home, which it said, “was preventable.”
“The Commonwealth did not keep its promise to protect and keep them safe from harm when they were unable to care for themselves,” the complaint states. “Our veterans deserved better.”
This is an understatement. It was and is the state’s responsibility to place those soldiers in the hands of administrators capable of leading a healthcare facility, and it was and is the state’s responsibility to make sure that those placed in these positions are doing the jobs they were hired to do.
In the case of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home tragedy, neither of these responsibilities were met.
The lawsuit repeatedly cited the findings of the state-ordered investigation by attorney Mark Pearlstein, who found that leaders at the Soldiers’ Home made ‘utterly baffling’ mistakes in responding to the outbreak. These mistakes were not the result of poor leadership — they were the result of unqualified leadership.
The consequences were catastrophic — 84 lives were lost, and countless other lives were shattered by those losses.
Families of the victims, and even Gov. Baker himself, have acknowledged that the money from the settlement — roughly $400,000 for each victim — doesn’t end the pain. But for many impacted by this tragedy, it will bring a sense of closure.
We’re hoping that it will bring something else — a deeper commitment on the part of this state and other states to uphold their promises to constituencies like the veterans in Holyoke and to take more seriously the responsibilities they have to place such facilities in the hands of people capable of running them.
It wasn’t long after the full scope of the tragedy in Holyoke revealed itself that it became clear that this calamity simply didn’t have to happen. Any doubts were erased by the state’s willingness to settle this lawsuit. The state did the right thing by settling and can do the right thing again by making sure that the lessons learned here are heeded and those in power remain vigilant in their efforts to ensure that something like this never happens again.