After months of study, Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration on Tuesday called for a new facility to replace the troubled state veterans’ home in downstate Quincy where 13 residents have died from Legionnaires’ disease since 2015.
The outline submitted to state lawmakers, which Rauner put on a legislative fast track for passage in the next four weeks, described a new 250- to 300-bed facility as “the most viable and effective long-term option” to safeguard elderly residents against the waterborne form of pneumonia.
The cost could range as high as $245 million.
“Legislators from both sides of the aisle have promised to put financial support behind our efforts to rebuild this home and take care of the veterans who have served our country,” Rauner was quoted as saying in a press release announcing the plan.
“Our number one goal is to protect our heroes. We’ve already taken significant steps to reduce the risks of Legionella at the home, and we look forward to working with the General Assembly to put stronger protections in place,” the governor said.
The proposal also recommends the construction of new underground plumbing, development of an alternate water source, and the purchase and renovation of an abandoned nursing home that could provide temporary housing for up to 180 residents during construction. That nursing home could later be used to house about 90 homeless veterans or those with behavioral issues, the report suggested.
The package has surfaced with one month remaining on the state legislature’s spring calendar and comes after investigative reporting by WBEZ brought renewed focus on a series of Legionnaires’ outbreaks at the facility in 2015, 2016, and 2017. Four more residents were sickened in February.
State Sen. Tom Cullerton, who co-chairs a joint legislative committee investigating the outbreaks, told WBEZ late Tuesday afternoon that there is a desire in the Democratic-led General Assembly to make improvements at the facility.
“Is there an appetite? Yes,” Cullerton said when asked whether legislators might approve a plan before the scheduled May 31 adjournment of the House and Senate.
However, he withheld judgment on the plan because he had not thoroughly had a chance to review it.
Meanwhile, an aide to Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan also said the report was under review and would not weigh in on its chances of being approved by the end of the month.
Asked if he had any initial thoughts on the administration’s plan, Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said, “It’s hard to say. I’ve not seen the release or what the details may actually be. This is, what, the third or fourth different idea they’ve expounded on? We’ll have to review it and see what can be done. Obviously, something significant needs to be done there.”
The outline does not lay out a specific funding source for the reconstruction project.
Pressed on whether it was incumbent on the Rauner administration to recommend ways to pay for the project, Brown said, “It would be refreshing if they did.”
Michael Hoffman, Rauner’s newly named point person for the Quincy crisis, said that question would be resolved in upcoming discussions with state lawmakers.
“We will be working with the General Assembly in the coming days to develop a funding plan now that we have the task force final recommendations,” Hoffman told WBEZ. “We intend to have a final plan approved by [May 31].”
Earlier this week, Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin noted that $685 million in federal money funding has been set aside for state veteran home construction grants across the country, which are designed to cover up to 65 percent of construction and renovation costs for approved facilities.
The Rauner administration also called for passage of a series of bills that it says would expedite construction of the facility and enable the state to tap into federal funding that could cover a large share of the overall project.
Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover state government and politics for WBEZ. Follow them at @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold.