‘Model’ for Veterans Care Takes Shape at Massachusetts Veterans Home At Holyoke

by Braxton Taylor

HOLYOKE — The foundation of the new $483 million Massachusetts Veterans Home at Holyoke is nearly complete, and the cranes are already being assembled that will raise the steel skeleton in May.

That’ll mean a ”topping off” ceremony as workers finish up the framing in November and, if all goes well, officials there told U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, that veterans should start moving into the new building in 2027.

“I think people will be very proud of this building, its facility and the grounds when they see it completed,” said Neal, D- Springfield.

Neal described how he worked with U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis R. McDonough, advocating for federal funding. The VA committed $263.5 million in federal funds to the project. The state is using a bond bill to fund the rest.

“To the people who run this facility, thanks,” Neal said. “We know how important this is.”

Neal toured the construction site and the existing 72-year-old building known for most of its life as the Holyoke Soldiers Home on Tuesday. He was joined by Dr. Jon Santiago, the state’s first cabinet-level secretary of veterans services and Maj. Gen. Sean Collins, chair of the home’s board of trustees.

“People have an interest in how these large construction projects are going,” Neal said. “We thought it was a good time for an update.”

In 2020, a COVID-19 outbreak killed more than 80 veterans at the existing facility, earning national condemnation. To deal with a shortage of staff, the home’s leadership at the time combined two dementia units into one, intermingling infected and uninfected veterans and placing beds close together, aiding the spread of the virus.

One week ago, the families of men who died in the home were outraged after two key figures appeared to escape serious punishment.

Bennett Walsh, former superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, and Dr. David Clinton, once its medical director, were each recently sentenced to three months of minimal conditions of probation after admitting to sufficient facts in Hampshire Superior Court.

Neal wouldn’t comment on that court case but he talked about the need for a new facility.

“Certainly I think it is fair to say the old facility was fairly aged,” Neal said.

Santiago — a former state representative, a major in the Army Reserve and a physician — addressed the COVID-19 outbreak directly.

“We’ve put in mechanisms, policies, procedures here to make sure that what happened here during COVID will never happen again,” Santiago said.

The new Holyoke facility will be built on the Veterans Affairs new “small house” model, with distinct communities of 10, 12 or 14 residents and a balance of independence with services.

“What you see behind us, is the beginning of a transformation that is already underway,” Santiago said. “Veterans Affairs will see this as a model not just for the state but for the country.”

Veterans will have food service and other amenities in their “small house.” It’ll be less institutional, Santiago said.

The building will also be nearly carbon neutral, with geothermal wells providing heating and air conditioning, and its power will be drawn from Holyoke Gas & Electric’s hydroelectric dam.

That will make the new home less costly to operate despite being 30% larger, said Joe Fazio, project manager for the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance.

There are also plans to install solar panels.

There are about 20 union tradespeople on site now, Fazio said. But when construction reaches its peak, there will be about 400 construction workers. The new home is being built under a union project labor agreement, and union leadership was there Tuesday to thank Neal for the support.

“Well there is a huge spin-off that comes with huge construction projects, particularly those that are government supported,” Neal said.

The new building is going up in what was a parking lot and dormitory-style housing. Once it’s done, the existing building will be demolished and the site landscaped.

Neal has been a frequent visitor to the home over the years. His uncle, a Korean War veteran, was a resident. He also visited his grandfather there.

Neal wanted to draw specific attention to the dementia unit.

“We forget how hard that is for families,” he said. “Somebody at 19 years old who participated, perhaps, in the D-Day invasion, to see them at more than 90 years old, it’s a different story. I’m a champion of this veterans’ home. That’s for sure.”

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