Gov. Baker Says Veterans Lived in ‘Deplorable Conditions;’ Urena Resigns Post

Department of Veterans Services’ Secretary Francisco Urena. (State House News Service.)

Gov. Charlie Baker plans to introduce a bill Thursday addressing governance of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, after a scathing report outlined failures and delays leading up to the death of 76 veteran residents from COVID-19.

At a noon press conference, Baker called the report “hard to read” and its contents “gut-wrenching,” saying veterans lived in “deplorable conditions” when the home’s leadership combined two dementia care units that housed some patients who were COVID-19 positive and others who had tested negative.

Baker said he accepted the resignation of Department of Veterans Services’ Secretary Francisco Urena and tapped Cheryl Poppe, the superintendent of the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home, as acting secretary. Baker said he was also “moving to end the employment” of Bennett Walsh, the Holyoke superintendent who has been on paid administrative leave. “Immediate action” has been taken to remove “unqualified staff,” from their positions, Baker said.

All recommendations made in attorney Mark Pearlstein’s report will be implemented, he said. Attorney General Maura Healey, who is also investigating the circumstances at the home, said the report by former federal prosecutor Mark Pearlstein “lays bare systemic failures of oversight by the Baker Administration in adequately preparing, staffing, and responding to this crisis to protect our veterans.” Healey said her investigation “will determine whether these missteps and errors warrant legal action.”

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