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Retired Holyoke Soldiers’ Home leader testifies before Congress, calling for more federal aid to support vets’ homes amid pandemic

Paul Barabani, superintendent of the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke from 2011-16, speaks at a news conference in June. (Dave Canton / The Republican file photo/TNS)

Members of Congress and the Trump administration differed on “where the buck stops” for veterans nursing facilities during a committee hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill, but most agreed the coronavirus emerged as a teachable moment of the most costly magnitude.

The disease has claimed the lives of at least 40,000 in nursing homes across the nation, including 76 at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke.

Wednesday’s hearing of the Subcommittee on Health of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Veterans Affairs featured high-ranking government officials and experts in the field.

Among five witnesses invited to testify was retired Soldiers’ Home Superintendent Paul Barabani. Barabani’s testimony was introduced by U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, also chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

The Soldiers’ Home has become a tragic example of the potential impact of COVID-19 on nursing homes. The virus killed and sickened dozens of patients and staff members over 11 weeks beginning in late March. State officials said Tuesday the virus had resurfaced in one patient previously considered “clinically recovered.”

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“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,” Neal told committee members.

The committee hearing was titled: “Who’s in Charge? Examining Oversight of State Veterans Homes during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” echoing committee Chairwoman and U.S. Rep. Julia Brownley’s first question of a top U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs official.

“First question goes to Dr. Boyd,” Brownley said, referring to Dr. Teresa D. Boyd, assistant deputy under secretary for health for clinical operations. “Where does the buck stop with regards to responsibility for quality of care for our nation’s veterans?”

“Truly, the operational aspect of that is in the lap of the state,” Boyd responded.

Brownley, a California Democrat, later disputed that position during the hearing, which lasted more than two hours and intermittently was hobbled by technical problems.

“Where does the buck stop? The buck, in terms of inspection and oversight, stops with the VA,” she said. “We need to be sure we’re doing what we need to do.”

Barabani, now among the leaders of the grassroots network called Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition, said during five minutes of testimony he felt state and federal officials may have saved lives — had they listened.

“I needed the VA’s help to influence the state’s decision makers … to provide funds for proper staffing levels, and the renovation of the home; to ensure safe, quality veteran care,” Barabani said. “I often ask myself: What if they had listened, and funded to my requests for additional staff … and the creation of individual rooms in the renovation project? How many of these deaths could have been prevented? If they had listened.”

The Soldiers’ Home falls into a unique category as veterans’ homes go, in that it does not accept Medicare or Medicaid funding and, thus, is subject to fewer inspections.

Gov. Charlie Baker earlier this year commissioned an independent report by a former federal prosecutor who concluded the home’s leaders — including ousted Superintendent Bennett Walsh — were woefully unprepared for the outbreak and made “baffling” decisions. Following the report’s findings, Baker proposed a number of state reforms including more frequent inspections.

Though not a member of the committee, U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., called into the meeting and asked a series of questions about funding, oversight and the impact of the deaths of families and fellow veterans.

“The families were so impacted they weren’t there at the time of the deaths,” Barabani said. “Some of the wives saw their husbands for the first time in weeks when they unzipped the body bags.”

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© 2020 MassLive.com