In one of his first acts as Illinois governor, Democrat JB Pritzker on Friday ordered a sweeping review of health and safety at all state-run veterans’ homes, following successive Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks at a facility in downstate Quincy.
Pritzker, who took office Monday, is giving his department of veterans’ affairs four months to deliver a “comprehensive review of weaknesses, strengths, and opportunities for improvement” at the four homes.
The executive order follows a year-long WBEZ investigation into former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration’s mishandling of Legionnaires’ outbreaks each year between 2015 and 2018. Those have contributed to the deaths of 14 people and dozens of illnesses.
“This executive order will hold state agencies accountable to the people and ensure the state is delivering quality care to our nation’s heroes — and take action where the state has fallen short in the past,” Pritzker was quoted as saying in a statement. “Veterans served us. Now it’s our turn to serve them.”
The review will focus on fixing health and safety problems for veterans’ home residents and workers; communication between the state and other agencies, as well as veterans’ families and the public, about “public health emergencies”; and maintenance at the homes.
Many of the issues Pritzker is reviewing were first brought to light by WBEZ’s investigation, based largely on more than 450,000 pages of internal documents and emails obtained by the station.
At several points, the documents revealed the Rauner administration’s efforts to control and restrict what information was made public about Legionnaires’ outbreaks at the Quincy home, even as people were still getting sick.
But during that time, Rauner’s top public health official waited six days to publicize the outbreak, and Rauner’s own press office contributed to that delay. Later, the governor’s own department of labor would criticize how the veterans’ home notified its workers of the outbreak via email. Some of them would later get sick.
In several negligence lawsuits filed against the state, Legionnaires’ victims’ families complained that they didn’t learn there was an outbreak of the deadly form of water-borne pneumonia until it was too late for their loved ones. Other family members and Quincy veterans’ home employees said they only learned of the outbreak on the local news.
Pritzker’s review of veterans’ home maintenance gets to a core issue that experts have said likely contributed to the spread of Legionnaires’ in Quincy: a Civil War-era plumbing system that has fostered growth of the legionella bacteria.
In November, just days before his landslide loss to Pritzker, Rauner’s administration released more than 130,000 pages of documents to WBEZ. That trove contained details about a bungled 2015 water tank maintenance project that may have pumped a “broth of legionella” into the home’s water supply.
During a bitter campaign leading up to his November victory, Pritzker repeatedly used the Quincy public health crisis to batter Rauner. In Friday’s press release about the executive order, Pritzker’s office didn’t mention Rauner by name, but pointed to “the gross mismanagement of the past that cost veterans their lives.”
For his part, Pritzker has vowed to follow through on Rauner’s plan to build an entirely new, roughly $250 million veterans’ home in Quincy. The Democratic-led legislature had agreed to a $53 million down payment on that project, but denied the Republican governor a full legislative victory just months before the election. It’ll be up to Pritzker and Democratic super-majorities in the General Assembly to finish the job.
Pritzker has also said he’d settle the 12 negligence lawsuits brought against the state by Legionnaire’s victims’ families. But he has not been clear on how much money he thinks each family should get. Following WBEZ’s reporting, state lawmakers overrode Rauner’s veto of a bill to raise the state’s damages award cap from $100,000, the lowest in the country, to the current $2 million.
Friday’s executive order creates yet another investigation into the Quincy Legionnaires’ crisis. Former Democratic Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan had opened a criminal probe that reached into Rauner’s own office and administration, while lawmakers had previously ordered an audit by the state’s auditor general.
WBEZ State Politics Reporters Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold contributed reporting.