DOJ opens investigation into nursing home where 32 veterans have died of coronavirus

Kristine Phillips and Joey Garrison, USA TODAY

BOSTON — The Justice Department has opened an investigation into a Massachusetts nursing home where 32 veterans have died of coronavirus, officials announced Friday.

The department's Civil Rights Division will investigate whether Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, a state-run facility about 90 miles west of Boston, failed to provide adequate medical care to its residents. 

The nursing home is already under investigation by state officials. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, has tapped a former federal prosecutor to investigate on behalf of the commonwealth.

In a statement Friday, Andrew Lelling, the U.S. attorney in Massachusetts, vowed to "aggressively" investigate the recent events at Soldiers' Home and to require the commonwealth to adopt reforms.

"It would be difficult to overstate our obligation to the health and well-being of elderly and disabled military veterans and, by extension, to their families ... We will get to the bottom of what happened here," Lelling said.

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The management of the Soldier's Home has faced intense scrutiny after the first eight deaths at the facility, which occurred throughout the month of March, were kept secret from the Holyoke city government and Massachusetts Office of Health and Human Services.

An anonymous whistleblower from inside the 68-year-old complex alerted Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse to the initial deaths on March 28. Two dozen more patients have since died from the virus. 

"These are people who gave their all, risked their lives to protect all of us, and they deserve better," Morse said on a Facebook livestream, recounting the anonymous tip that first alerted officials to the conditions and the "gravity of the situation."

When Morse finally got a hold of the facility's superintendent, Bennett Walsh, Morse said he was "shocked" to learn eight veterans died during a four-day span without any public notification.

"There was a clear lack of urgency on that phone call," Morse said, characterizing Walsh as downplaying the deaths because of the residents' underlying health conditions and old age. "That's certainly not an excuse for improper isolation of those folks that did test positive."

Walsh was immediately suspended from his position. The Massachusetts Office of Health and Human Services also announced a new "clinical command structure" to bring clinical expertise to Soldiers' Home, among other measures.

The office did not directly address the federal investigation when asked to comment.

“It is imperative that the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home provide a safe environment for the veteran residents, and the dedicated staff who serve them," a spokesperson said, pointing to the leadership change and the governor's own investigation. 

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Long-term care facilities for the elderly are at the center of the nation's coronavirus crisis. The first major outbreak in the U.S. occurred in a facility in Kirkland, Washington, where 37 people linked to the facility have died. The New York Times reported the facility faces $600,000 in fines after federal and state inspectors identified several issues with its handling of the outbreak.

There have been at least 85 outbreaks in nursing homes in Massachusetts, according to the Boston Globe. Massachusetts has had 20,974 confirmed coronavirus cases and 599 deaths.

The Justice Department, under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, investigates alleged civil rights violation at places that house, incarcerate and detain people. These include prisons, jails, juvenile facilities, psychiatric hospitals and nursing homes. The law allows federal officials to investigate whether there's pattern and practice of civil rights violations at state-run institutions.

"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 ... and protect those veterans who continue to reside at the Soldiers' Home."

Reach Kristine Phillips @bykristinep and Joey Garrison at @joeygarrison on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: DOJ opens investigation into Massachusetts veterans home