BOSTON (WBZ NewsRadio) — A former Superintendent of Holyoke Soldiers' Home provided testimony to Congress on Wednesday, advocating for greater oversight by the Department of Veterans' Affairs of State Veteran Homes.
Paul Barabani, a retired U.S. Army colonel in the Massachusetts National Guard, served as Superintendent at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home from 2011 to January 2016.
He testified remotely to the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Health, as part of its oversight hearing entitled “Who’s in Charge? Examining Oversight of State Veterans Homes during the COVID-19 Pandemic.”
Barabani spoke on behalf of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home Coalition, a group that formed in the wake of a COVID-19 outbreak at the Home, which killed 76 veteran residents.
"Our mission is to advocate for the staff and residents of the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke by demanding improved staffing, the construction of a new Home ... and better governance and oversight of the Home," said Barabani. "The lack of state support to the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke has long been a topic of much consternation among Veterans in western Massachusetts."
Barabani said under his leadership, in 2010, the Annual VA Survey of Homes reported only five percent of Holyoke's beds met VA standards. He said the Home submitted a plan that would have accommodated 270 residents, including the construction of a new wing containing 120 private rooms.
The VA Construction Grant Program approved the plan in 2013, and in 2014, Barabani said the VA also approved the Home's design for an Adult Day Healthcare program at Holyoke.
However, the plans were never fully funded, and Barabani said the Coalition believes "the lack of sufficient staff and crowded rooms were root causes of the rapid spread of the virus resulting in the deaths of 76 American Heroes."
Barabani said similarly, the Annual VA Survey caught critical health issues at the Home in Holyoke this year, but no corrective action was taken.
"During the VA's most recent Annual Survey of Soldiers' Homes, which was completed on January 31, 2020, the [Holyoke] facility did not have an established infection control program," he said.
In particular, Barabani advocated for there to be more collaboration between the VA and State Veteran Homes, including recommendations he outlined in a "Strategic Partnership" plan.
The plan includes calls to establish a methodology to formally address “recurring deficiencies”; especially those that require corrective action and resources above the facility level.
Barabani also recommended the VA survey should include "an analysis of staffing levels in relation to resident complexity."
The Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition has previously called on the Baker-Polito Administration to address "significant concerns" they have with the state’s plan to improve the operations and oversight of the Soldiers’ Home.
"A major focus for the coalition is to ensure that Veterans and family members of Veterans are included in any major reforms or changes to the governance of the Soldiers’ Home," the group said.
(Photo: Getty Images)