Charlie Baker’s reforms for Holyoke Soldiers’ Home don’t mandate license for next superintendent. Here’s why.

"I would hate to miss out on an opportunity to put a talent like that in place at Holyoke if a talent like that is available.”

Charlie Baker at a recent press conference.
Gov. Charlie Baker at a recent press conference. –Nicolaus Czarnecki / Pool

When Gov. Charlie Baker spoke after the report was released detailing the flawed practices that may have contributed to the deadly outbreak of COVID-19 at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, he said his administration would put all of the report’s recommendations in place.

However, he has decided to modify one — the requirements for the new superintendent of the facility.

The report by former federal prosecutor Mark Pearlstein, released on June 24, at one point calls decisions made by the facility’s leadership during the outbreak “utterly baffling.” Seventy-six veterans died, and 84 veteran residents and 80 staff members contracted the virus. The home’s superintendent at the time, Bennett Walsh, was placed on administrative leave on March 30, and Baker has said he is working to remove him.

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Among its recommendations, the report says superintendents “should be licensed nursing home administrators with substantial healthcare experience, and that the facility should comply with the Department of Public Health’s licensing and inspection regime.”

The report does weigh the qualification, citing Cheryl Poppe, who leads the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home and was named the acting secretary of veterans affairs. Poppe helped at Holyoke when authorities learned of the severity of the outbreak. Witnesses spoke positively of Poppe, and the report says that “by all accounts, Ms. Poppe is a highly competent manager who does an exceptional job” even though she does not hold a nursing home administrator’s license.

“Our recommendation and answers to these questions stem from a simple premise: the veterans who served our country and spend the last years of their lives at the Soldiers’ Home deserve—at a minimum—the same standards and protections as residents at private long-term care and nursing facilities,” the report says. “This is not to say that someone cannot do a good job as Superintendent without being licensed—but licensure in this profession (like other professions for which Massachusetts requires licensure) is one way to help ensure a baseline of competence.”

During his remarks on the report, Baker called its findings “nothing short of gut wrenching.”

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“Upon reviewing the report, we’ll accept and implement all these recommendations,” he said at the time.

The Baker administration unveiled its recommended reforms for the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home the following day, and included recommended qualifications for the superintendent.

“The new posting for the position of Superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home will include a preference for hiring a licensed nursing home administrator,” the reforms say.

Baker was questioned about deviating from ensuring the next superintendent is a licensed nursing home administrator to making it “a preference” during a press conference last Wednesday.

Baker spoke of Val Liptak, a nurse and the CEO of Western Massachusetts Hospital who has stood in as superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. He called her work “extraordinary” and said “I would hate to miss out on an opportunity to put a talent like that in place at Holyoke if a talent like that is available.”

Liptak will return to the hospital, Baker said.

“I do think the most important thing that has to happen here is the person who becomes the next superintendent needs to be someone who has a solid resume with respect to their experience and their track record in managing in clinical settings, managing infectious disease, and having a sterling set of recommendations coming from wherever it is they’ve worked previously,” he said.

Baker also spoke of legislation he has filed that would add two members with health care experience to the board of trustees at both the Holyoke and Chelsea soldiers’ homes.

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