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Department of Justice investigating veterans home where more than two dozen residents died after testing positive for coronavirus

The Department of Justice announced Friday that it is investigating a veterans home in Massachusetts where over two dozen residents died after testing positive for coronavirus. The Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney's Office will conduct a joint review into whether the residents have been deprived of their rights to medical care at the facility.

"It would be difficult to overstate our obligation to the health and well-being of elderly and disabled military veterans and, by extension, to their families. The federal Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act specifically protects the rights of those confined in state facilities like the Holyoke Soldiers' Home," U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said in a statement. 

According to CBS Boston, 32 veteran residents have died as of Thursday, 28 of whom tested positive for the coronavirus. In total, 69 residents have tested positive, as have 68 staff members. 

The situation at Holyoke was dire even before the pandemic struck. According to the latest inspection report from August 2019, Medicare.gov gave the facility one out of five stars overall, meaning they performed "much below average." The facilities staff was also rated as "much below average," the health inspection rating was "below average," and the facility was determined to have an "average" quality of care.

The home's superintendent, Bennett Walsh, was placed on paid administrative leave on March 30 after Governor Charlie Baker was informed of the situation. Walsh disputed assertions that the officials were not made aware of the dire situation at the Soldiers' Home, and accused them of lying. 
 
Val Liptak, who is currently the CEO of Western Massachusetts Hospital, has taken over for Walsh at the Soldiers' Home. When contacted by CBS News, Soldiers' Home passed along the request for comment to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services, which said that an "onsite clinical command team comprised of medical, epidemiological, and operational experts has been instituted, and they have assertively responded to the emergency situation and are continually making necessary changes on the ground to protect resident safety." 

Since several employees became infected with COVID-19, new staff are being onboarded to the facility. The Home's new administration is also using contracted staff and per-diem staff, as well as support from the Massachusetts National Guard who were called to the scene by Governor Baker.

The Massachusetts Attorney General, Maura Healey, also announced on Wednesday that her office would be looking into "what went wrong" at Soldiers' Home.

"We owe it to the veterans, their families, and the public to investigate the facts, determine what happened, ensure compliance with the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, and protect those veterans who continue to reside at the Soldiers' Home," Eric Dreiband, the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, said in a statement.

Residents and families are encouraged to contact investigators at 1-888-221-6023 or by email at USAMA.victimassistance@usdoj.gov. 

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