Doctor in face mask is looking away through window with tiredness while having a break

Two high-level state employees brought on to manage a pair of controversial veterans’ homes in the early days of the pandemic filed a whistleblower lawsuit Wednesday in Massachusetts.

Eric Sheehan, a one-time official in the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services, and Beth Scheffler, the former acting chief nursing officer at a veterans’ facility in the city of Chelsea, filed the suits. They were fired during the height of the pandemic after raising concerns about poor health practices, shoddy record-keeping and other issues, according to published reports.

Sheehan, a former Marine who wrote healthcare regulations for long-term care facilities, was hired as the state’s assistant secretary of veterans’ homes and was brought in to oversee the Chelsea and Holyoke veterans’ facilities.

More than 100 veterans died at the two facilities during the COVID pandemic, according to local media. Top building managers were indicted for neglect and bodily injury charges but were eventually found not guilty of the charges.

Calls to both Chelsea and the Holyoke Soldiers Home were not returned by McKnight’s production deadline. The Department of Veterans Services said it does not comment on potential litigation.

Scheffler, described as a regulations expert who spent 20 years investigating healthcare facilities for the Massachusetts Department of Health, was recruited by Sheehan to manage the nursing staff at Chelsea.

The whistleblowers insisted they put policies in place to comply with state guidelines, but later found they were not being followed. Scheffler said she voiced concerns with supervisors about key infection control precautions not being followed.

“They were lacking in very basic infection control requirements,” she told reporters. “Training people on basic protective equipment from hand hygiene to how to put on a gown … they didn’t have any of that.”

Boston attorney Andrew Couture has previously said his clients both became frustrated after their complaints about conditions with supervisors went unheeded. Calls to Couture’s office seeking comment were not returned Thursday.

Scheffler told reporters she was “frustrated with the lack of response” before filing a complaint with the Office of the Inspector General. Her interview with the IG came on the same day she was terminated. Sheehan was reportedly fired soon after.

Grand jury charges

In late 2020, a grand jury indicted former Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh, 50, and former Medical Director Dr. David Clinton, 71, on charges of causing or permitting serious bodily injury or neglect of an elder.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey believed the charges to be the first COVID criminal charges in the US against nursing home officials, but the case was later dismissed

Meanwhile this week, the Department of Veterans Affairs awarded the state $130 million in conditional funding for the construction of a new Holyoke facility. The existing 1952 building will be replaced by one with 235 beds in mostly private rooms.

Many of the COVID deaths at Holyoke in the initial outbreak were attributed to a decision to merge two dementia care units, combining COVID-positive residents with others who were asymptomatic. More than 160 residents and staff members contracted the disease after an initial outbreak in the early months of the pandemic.

An independent government report released in June 2020 claimed that Walsh was not qualified to operate a long-term care facility and alleged that “substantial errors and failures” led to the deaths. Operators of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home also were hit with a proposed class-action lawsuit in mid-July 2020, seeking more than $175 million in damages.