HOLYOKE, Mass. (WWLP) – One of the deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks in America occurred at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke. The former superintendent and Congressman Neal are working together to prevent an outbreak there in future.

Paul Barabani, former Superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home testified before congress, advocating for more federal government intervention at state veteran homes.

The hearing “Who’s in charge? Examining oversight of state veteran homes during the COVID-19 pandemic” was held Wednesday by the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health.

Congressman Neal explained what led up to the virus spreading at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, and 74 COVID-19 deaths. He said he constantly asked the VA during his time to provide funds for proper staffing levels and the renovation of the home to ensure safe quality veteran care.

As a witness, Congressman Neal called upon former Superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, Paul Barabani to speak before congress to advocate for greater oversight form the federal government of state veterans homes.

Barabani is a retired US Army Colonel served as superintendent from 2011 to 2016 when he retired because he felt the state wasn’t addressing the critical needs of the home like inadequacy staffing and critical physical renovations.

They want the state to maintain the same number of beds and not downsize the home and also pushing for a new adult day care facility.

Congressman Neal said he’s willing to help provide federal resources to the state on the renovations. The Cares Act would provide $5 billion to funding long term care facilities and state veterans homes.

Neal Introduction of Paul Barabani, former Superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, at the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Hearing on State Veterans’ Homes

(As prepared for delivery)

Good morning Chairwoman Brownley and Ranking Member Dunn. Thank you for inviting me today to the Subcommittee on Health’s hearing, Who’s in Charge? Examining Oversight of State Veterans Homes During the COVID-19 Pandemic.  I’m glad to introduce your first witness, Paul Barabani, who served as the Superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in my district from 2011 to 2016.

In 2016, Mr. Barabani resigned his position because he felt the state was not addressing critical needs at the home, like inadequate staffing and crucial physical renovations. He and other former employees recently formed the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition to fight for state-level reforms and be a voice for the home’s veterans and their families, as well as facility employees.

In March, COVID-19 hit the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home particularly hard – it was one of the first state veterans’ homes to experience a major outbreak. Insufficient staffing and infection control issues resulted in the deaths of 76 veterans.

In April, the National Guard stepped in to provide extra staffing and other critical details to help stabilize the situation and create a safer environment.

This shocking outcome led to an independent investigation into the tragedy. Like Mr. Barabani, I welcomed the report Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s Administration released in June that pointed to a clear need for more transparency and accountability. But more detailed reforms are needed. First, the facility needs to maintain the current number of beds and oppose attempts to downsize. Second, a new adult day care facility should also be established on site. And finally, Western Massachusetts needs to have a voice in the discussion about the future of the facility going forward – the conversations cannot just occur in Boston.

While I wholeheartedly embrace plans to renovate the Soldiers’ Home, it needs to be treated with the same equity as its counterpart in Chelsea. 

This is a seismic chore and I am willing to help provide federal resources so the state can move forward to rebuild the facilities and create a more transparent, healthy environment for our veterans and those who care for them.  Last week, after my many conversations with the Administration about securing resources for nursing homes and state veterans’ homes, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced it would devote $5 billion of the CARES Act funding to long-term care facilities and state veterans’ homes.”

But the problems revealed as COVID struck the soldiers home were not unique to veterans’ facilities in our nation. I have long been concerned about the health and safety of the millions of Americans who receive care in nursing facilities and have worked tirelessly to get the Administration to address gaps in oversight and shore up consumer protections – both prior to and during the pandemic.

The death toll in nursing homes during the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light the many challenges that patients and their families have been facing for years. Last month, I encouraged the Ways and Means Health Subcommittee to hold a hearing about this important issue, and I was struck by the heart-wrenching testimony of the witnesses.

Across the country, staff continue to report they don’t have access to the tests or the personal protective equipment they need, and there have even been reports that PPE sent to nursing homes from the federal government is inadequate for health settings.

Make no mistake, what’s happening in nursing homes across the country right now is no coincidence – it is the outcome of a longstanding de-regulation campaign the Trump Administration has waged against nursing homes for years. Their policies have exacerbated the already present safety threats to these residents and thousands have died because of it.

The Administration simply has not done enough to contain the virus and protect both patients and workers.

I have repeatedly raised these concerns with Secretary Azar and Administrator Verma, and some of the recent actions they have taken to address nursing home issues flows from my public and private suggestions to them on this matter. I am pleased they are starting to listen – but there is more urgent work that needs to be done.

The Heroes Act, which the House passed over two months ago, includes provisions to provide vital resources to nursing homes and strengthen protections for patients and workers. Advocates and health professionals alike agree that the Administration’s inaction earlier this year has worsened the outcomes and fatality rates in nursing homes, which are now estimated to account for at least 40 percent of deaths nationwide.

I am pleased Mr. Barabani is here today to share his insights on this tragedy and – just as important – what steps can be taken to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

With that, I yield back the balance of my time.