‘Silent suffering on that waiting list’: Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition says state plan for new facility falls short

Gladys T. Black

HOLYOKE — Leaders of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition have turned up the public heat on state officials over plans to build a new facility after the staggering COVID-19 outbreak at the long-term care facility last spring.

Paul Barabani and John Paradis, the onetime superintendent and deputy superintendent of the Soldiers’ Home, respectively, led a presentation Tuesday highlighting what they believe is a woefully flawed plan the state is poised to present to the federal government in April.

The grassroots coalition of nearly three dozen including former administrators, lawmakers, family members, veterans and supporters formed somewhat organically in response to the crisis. The group was among the first to call for a revival of plans to build a new home after previous proposals were essentially abandoned by state government for nearly a decade.

Gov. Charlie Baker and his cabinet ordered a “rapid planning” process to begin anew after at least 76 veterans died of COVID-19 last spring. The outbreak resulted in a gutting of top managers, lawsuits, national media coverage and criminal neglect charges against former Superintendent Bennett Walsh and medical director Dr. David Clinton.

The Boston-based Payette design group recommended a $300 million state-of-the-art facility with 180 to 204 beds, an adult day health center and other enhanced features. The current facility on Cherry Street in Holyoke has a capacity of 247 beds, but Barabani’s presentation included pictures showing cramped rooms with barely enough space for a walker to slide by.

The Payette analysis cited a decline in demand based on the current waiting list, population-based statistics and other factors. Coalition members say that analysis is gravely flawed and underestimates the future need for long-term care for veterans. Barabani insists the number of beds at a new facility should be closer to 280.

For one, Payette’s analysis relies on a wait list that has been skewed sharply downward by COVID-19 — and still, 40% of the veterans on the 2020 list died waiting for a bed.

“There is so much silent suffering on that waiting list,” Barabani said, citing strains on families struggling to care for ill veterans at home and the crushing financial burdens long-term care can pose.

Cheryl Malandrinos of Wilbraham, whose father-in-law died of the virus at the Soldiers’ Home, spoke during the presentation, recounting her in-laws’ struggles with mounting debt.

Harry Malandrinos was a Korean War veteran and retired public schools educator diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease who took serious falls as a result. He was in and out of rehab facilities and nursing homes for more than a year. The couple’s debt quickly exceeded $40,000. Harry Malandrinos had been on the waitlist for months in 2018.

“The creditors were knocking and the only way to pay them was to sell the place Kay and Harry had called home for more than 40 years,” Cheryl Malandrinos said. “I called the Soldiers’ Home and begged them to help us.”

Largely subsidized by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Barabani said care at the Soldiers’ Home has cost the state an average of $30 per day, per veteran.

“That’s a bargain for state of Massachusetts thanks to the partnership with the federal government,” he said.

The process to get a new Soldiers’ Home built in the next five years hinges on two important deadlines. First, the state must submit a grant application with a detailed plan for the facility to the federal government by April 15 in an attempt to secure a 65% construction subsidy. Then, the state must commit its portion and pass a bond bill by Aug. 1 in order to guarantee the funding.

That deadline is where previous plans for a new facility have fallen apart in years past, according to Barabani, dying on Beacon Hill over two gubernatorial administrations since 2012.

The coalition plans to advocate for its analysis and plan for a bigger facility at a special meeting before the Soldiers’ Home Board of Trustees on Wednesday night. Members also have been lobbying Western Massachusetts legislators in an effort to gain more support.

In addition to what they believe is a flawed statistical basis, Paradis said the plan fails to anticipate future wars and international conflicts, or increases in female veterans and those with PTSD and other mental health injuries triggered by battlefields.

“We hope our legislators are listening, we hope our trustees are listening and at the end of the day we hope the executive branch does the right thing,” Paradis said.

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