Two former Soldiers’ Home employees sue state for $4.5M

  • The Massachusetts National Guard did a fly over of area hospitals with F-15’s including the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke Wednesday, May 6, 2020. FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 9/30/2022 4:28:36 PM
Modified: 9/30/2022 4:24:23 PM

HOLYOKE — Two former employees of the state Soldiers’ Homes who claim they were fired when they raised red flags about “shortcomings” in the facilities’ COVID-19 response have filed a federal lawsuit accusing officials of “gross mismanagement” and violating the law that protects whistleblowers.

The lawsuit seeking $4.5 million in total punitive damages is just the latest in a flurry of litigation that has come in the fallout from the coronavirus outbreak that killed 84 veterans at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke in 2020. The plaintiffs join a stream of former employees who allege their efforts to improve conditions for patients were thwarted by management.

Eric Sheehan, former assistant secretary of the homes in Holyoke and Chelsea for the Department of Veterans’ Services, and Beth Scheffler, former acting nursing director in Chelsea, filed their suit in federal court in Essex County last month. They are suing the homes, the department and its parent agency, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, along with officials who oversee the entities.

Sheehan and Scheffler argue that they were separately fired last year for complaining about the homes’ management to the Massachusetts Office of the Inspector General.

The first COVID-19 case at the Holyoke home was recorded in March 2020. By June, 76 veterans already had died there with COVID and 31 others had died at the Chelsea home.

Gov. Charlie Baker selected Sheehan for the assistant secretary role under Veterans’ Services Secretary Cheryl Poppe in December 2020. In the lawsuit, Sheehan said he was “tasked to identify and fix problems” in Holyoke.

“He raised concerns about how staff continued to place infected veteran/residents too near uninfected veteran/residents,” the lawsuit alleges, but the issues were not addressed and he brought his findings to the inspector general for the first time on Sept. 28, 2021.

The lawsuit describes Sheehan’s alleged attempts to inform his superiors that the Holyoke home “was not following regulatory requirements” and tell them about a “lack of leadership, engagement, and sense of urgency” on the part of administrators.

Sheehan said he was also questioning the indoor visitation policy at the Chelsea home and the firing of Scheffler, with whom he had conducted an assessment of the home’s pandemic response that found “antiquated infrastructure” was a “major contributing factor” to the deaths there. Scheffler said she had complained about staffing shortages and problems with medical records.

“Besides the obvious concerns relating to health care facilities during the pandemic, there were other challenges Sheehan faced in his position, including debating policies and protocol related to: screening protocols, the definition of a fever, staffing ratios, infection control protocols” and other issues, the lawsuit reads.

He had a second meeting with the inspector general’s office on Oct. 14, the same day he sent an email to Poppe and others to complain about the firing of Scheffler. Four days later, the lawsuit alleges, Sheehan was fired.

Scheffler alleges that she “noted numerous areas where evaluation and corrective action were needed.”


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