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State agrees to pay $56M to settle Holyoke Soldiers’ Home COVID lawsuit

During a massive outbreak in 2020, more than 80 veterans died.

The Holyoke Soldiers’ Home was the site of a deadly COVID outbreak during the pandemic's early days. Patrick Johnson/The Republican via AP, File

Two years ago, the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home was the site of one of the country’s deadliest outbreaks of COVID-19. Now, Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration has agreed to pay $56 million to the families of veterans who contracted the virus at the facility in spring and early summer 2020. 

In a statement Thursday, officials gave more details about the settlement. A minimum of $400,000 would be paid to the families of the 84 veterans who died from COVID. The veterans who contracted COVID but survived would be paid a minimum of $10,000, with an average payment of $20,000, The Boston Globe reports.

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“There is no amount of money that can compensate our clients for the loss of their loved ones. But our clients are grateful that the Commonwealth has acted to resolve this matter without the need for protracted litigation by agreeing to compensate both the families of those who died of COVID, as well as the veterans who survived. The settlement is fair and just,” said the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Tom Lesser, in a statement.

This agreement is not completely finalized yet, and is subject to approval by the federal district court for Massachusetts. Former U.S. Attorney Donald K. Stern will serve as the settlement claims administrator, according to the statement. Stern will make awards to individual claimants based on a review of their specific circumstances. Baker is planning to file legislation in the next few weeks that will seek $56 million for the claims fund.

The payment covers veterans who contracted COVID and lived at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home at any time between March 1, 2020, and June 23, 2020. 

The Baker administration came under fire for hiring Bennett Walsh as superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, and for wider state oversight of the facility. In a report from the state Inspector General last month, Walsh was criticized for not having or developing the leadership capacity or temperament for the role. 

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“He created an unprofessional and negative work environment, retaliated against employees he deemed disloyal, demonstrated a lack of engagement in the home’s operations, and circumvented his chain of command,” an executive summary of the report said.

An attorney for Walsh has in the past defended the way he ran the home, and blamed the state for failing to respond to requests for help, the Associated Press reported. 

Officials also acknowledge that Walsh inherited certain problems when he was appointed by Baker in 2016. This includes ongoing staffing issues, tension with unions representing employees, and key leadership vacancies, according to the report. 

The state Executive Office of Health and Human Services and the state Department of Veterans’ Services were also criticized for not adequately addressing complaints from staff at the home about Walsh.

“The COVID-19 outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home was a terrible tragedy. While we know nothing can bring back those who were lost, we hope that this settlement brings a sense of closure to the loved ones of the veterans,” Baker said in a statement.

In March, the official who was chosen to identify and fix problems at state-run veterans’ homes in both Holyoke and Chelsea after the initial outbreak said he was fired for raising concerns that dangerous COVID prevention practices persisted, the Globe reported

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This includes reports that staff at the homes continued to place infected veterans too close to those that remained uninfected. This practice allegedly fueled the first outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. The exact chain of events that caused the catastrophe was the subject of a lengthy report by the Globe’s Spotlight Team.

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