Sunday Eagle-Tribune, January 8, 2023, by Mike LaBella
Editor’s note: Arlene Germain is Chair of Dignity Alliance’s Facilities Workgroup.
A lawsuit filed on behalf of a man murdered at a Haverhill nursing home in 2019 claims that staff failed to provide protection from his roommate, even after the 76-year-old pleaded for a new rooming assignment.
The lawsuit includes insights from former employee Gayle Sinibaldi, a licensed certified occupational therapy assistant. She testified to knowing about Robert Boucher’s apprehension toward his roommate Jose Veguilla, 83 at the time.
Boucher’s fears proved true when on the night of Oct. 5, 2019, he was killed by Veguilla, the lawsuit states.
“After Bob shed tears, I approached a manager and stated that Bob needed to be moved,” Sinibaldi said in her affidavit. “The manager told me to back off and to stay in my lane.”
Weeks after notifying the manager, Sinibaldi said she was home when she received a call about Boucher’s death.
“I was stunned,” she said. “When I returned to work two days later, the communication book with my notes about what Bob had said to me was gone.”
Sinibaldi said she will never understand why Boucher wasn’t moved to another room after his clear cries for help.
“I am also haunted by the sudden disappearance of the communication book, which contains numerous notes about Bob’s fears for his safety and well-being,” she stated in the affidavit.
A police report on file in Haverhill District Court describes the evening of Oct. 5, 2019. Jose Veguilla swung a walker and hit Boucher several times as he was lying in bed in their room, delivering blows to Boucher’s face and head that ultimately killed him, police said.
Status of Jose Veguilla
Veguilla was indicted on a first-degree murder charge and sent to Bridgewater State Hospital for mental competency evaluation in February 2020, court officials said.
According to Glen Johnson, spokesman for newly elected Essex County District Attorney Paul Tucker, Veguilla’s case is slated for a status update in Salem Superior Court on Jan. 18.
“To date, the defendant has been found not competent to stand trial,” he said, noting Veguilla is being held at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital, where officials have successfully petitioned to keep him for another year.
Johnson declined the chance to comment when asked about an investigation into the missing communication book.
A lawsuit is filed
Arlene Germain of Medford, who was appointed to represent the estate of Robert Boucher, filed the lawsuit in Essex Superior Court in Woburn in August. The defendant is Oxford LLC and its parent company, Athena Health Care LLC of Massachusetts.
Germain is a co-founder of the Massachusetts Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, the only statewide consumer group advocating for improvements in the care, dignity, and quality of life for Massachusetts nursing home residents.
“A lot of nursing home patients have family and friends to advocate for them, but some do not have anyone. That’s why nursing homes must be held to such important standards,” she said.
According to the lawsuit, Boucher was subjected to abuse, neglect, and exploitation as a result of the actions or omissions of staff at the Oxford.
It notes that Veguilla had a history of violent outbursts and aggressive behavior toward other residents and staff.
Germain is seeking punitive damages.
She wants not only accountability from Oxford and Athena, but to deter this type of conduct in the future.
When given the opportunity to respond to the lawsuit, Savannah Ragali, spokeswoman for Athena Healthcare Systems in Farmington, Connecticut, said she was unable to comment at this time.
Attorney Marc Breakstone of Breakstone, White & Gluck, P.C. in Boston is representing Germain.
Breakstone told The Eagle-Tribune that the case is a “remarkable” one in that information is revealed, when in other cases is it often hidden from public view.
“In many cases of neglect, the official record of the facility has no mention of any irregularities but here there is documentation from an employee who reported serious safety and security issues to the facility,” he said.
“She documented them in a communications book and reported to a federal monitor that she had brought these concerns to the attention of the facility, and that she had documented the safety concerns in a book that went missing and can now speak the truth about what happened.”
Breakstone said he became involved when a family member of Boucher contacted him after the man’s death. Breakstone said it took months to have a personal representative appointed, then longer to request and receive investigative materials from the Essex County District Attorney’s Office.
It also took time to find Sinibaldi, he said.
Breakstone said it will take longer for the case to be presented before a judge.
“Cases are in a schedule order which calls for trial in just under three years,” he said.
In Sinibaldi’s affidavit, she referred to Boucher as an “outgoing, friendly, and personable man, who despite being in his 70s had a very young attitude and way about him.” She said he was flirtatious and several nurses and therapists who took care of Boucher were friendly with him.
Management did not take kindly to Boucher’s sociable interactions with staff, according to Sinibaldi, and in August 2019, Boucher was moved from the first floor, where he was happy living, to the second floor, which housed long-term residents.
Sinibaldi said Boucher almost immediately told her he was not comfortable with Veguilla, who spoke only Spanish, and that Veguilla taunted him and stole his clothes.
“My patients mean everything to me and patients need to be listened to,” she said. “Bob wasn’t asking for anything more than a room change. They would not do it and I was simply told to back off.”
Sinibaldi said she was terminated from her job Sept. 1, 2022.
Within months, the state attorney general’s office reached a settlement with Athena in a case unrelated to Boucher.
In a Dec. 21, 2022 press release, Attorney General Maura Healey noted that Athena Health Systems of Farmington, Connecticut, agreed to pay $1.75 million and adopt a series of critical compliance measures in a settlement reached by Healey’s office.
The settlement resolves a series of allegations, including that the company failed to meet the needs of nursing home residents experiencing substance use disorder.
The largest nursing home settlement ever reached by the AG’s office, these funds will be directed to the state’s Opioid Recovery and Remediation Trust Fund for prevention, harm reduction, treatment, and recovery across Massachusetts.