Criminal Charges Filed in COVID-19 Veterans Nursing Home Case

Lawsuit against Veterans nursing home

Criminal Charges Filed in COVID-19 Nursing Home Case in Veterans Home

In late September 2020, two leading administrators at a veterans’ nursing home in Massachusetts were criminally charged with negligence due to their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. This marks the nation’s first criminal case against nursing homes related to the outbreak of the virus.

The criminal charges were pressed against Dr. David Clinton, the former medical director of the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, and Bennett Walsh, the superintendent of the facility. Each was individually charged with recklessly permitting abuse or bodily injury to the residents following an April 2020 investigation initiated by Attorney General Maura Healey, arising out of COVID outbreak in the nursing home.

The Attorney General’s Investigation

As part of Healey’s investigation, a number of deficiencies were discovered—in particular, a severe staffing shortage that prompted the facility to merge two separate dementia units. Confirmed COVID-19 cases were present in one of the units, and the charges assign responsibility to Clinton and Walsh for their decision to cohabitate these affected patients with asymptomatic veterans following the merge.

As a result of moving residents, older folks—many of whom had tested positive or were symptomatic—were assigned in groups of six to rooms that had space for only four alongside asymptomatic roommates. Some symptomatic residents were kept in a dining room as an additional necessity due to inadequate staffing. This issue is known to lead to a number of nursing home abuses such as bedsores and physical abuse.

Healey’s investigation marks the first criminal charges pressed for how nursing homes have handled the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is not the first instance of litigation as a result of the decisions made by long-term care facilities. In July, one veteran’s estate filed a class action lawsuit alleging that the administrators of the long-term care facility did not do their due diligence in ensuring the safety of the elderly at their location.

Staff members felt largely helpless to address the situation, with one recreational therapist admitting that she felt as though she was “walking [the veterans] to their death.” Once the situation at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke was known, the commonwealth’s emergency team was dispatched quickly. Upon assessing the state of the patients in the home, the response team immediately sent many of them to hospitals and other critical care facilities; this choice was also available to administrator Bennett Walsh, who did not choose to do so.

Other Deficiencies at the Veterans Facility

In addition to the long-term care facility’s decision to merge two units and intermingle symptomatic COVID-19 residents, a number of other shortcomings were also documented as part of Attorney General Healey’s investigation. The facility allegedly failed to isolate symptomatic patients as soon as the illness began to manifest, increasing the spread of the virus.

Additionally, testing was typically performed late—multiple days after a resident began showing symptoms, and long after the coronavirus could have been passed on to others. The Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke experienced significant delays in closing common spaces and allegedly made no efforts to stop the rotation of staff between units of COVID-positive and asymptomatic residents.

The Massachusetts Department of Health does not require the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke to be led by a licensed administrator because it is a state-run facility; this lack of experienced governance has been tied to a number of unexplained injuries in the past. Governor Charlie Baker acknowledged that “our administration did not do the job we should have done in overseeing Bennett Walsh and the Soldiers’ Home.” It is unclear at this time whether this case will lead to changes in the manner in which state facilities are managed.

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