Democrats grilled members of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s cabinet on Wednesday over their alleged secrecy surrounding the series of fatal Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks at a state-run veterans’ home that have dogged the governor’s re-election campaign.
A WBEZ investigation into 13 Legionnaires’-related deaths at the Illinois Veterans Home in downstate Quincy has triggered legislation and hearings about how Rauner’s administration responded to one of the worst public health crises of his three-year tenure.
During a joint House-Senate hearing, Democrats blasted the directors of the state Public Health and Veterans’ Affairs departments for their unwillingness to turn over internal emails relating to the Legionnaires’ outbreaks that began in 2015, resurfaced in 2016, and happened again last year.
Criticism over the lack of disclosure also came from members of the public sector union that represents workers at the facility. They told lawmakers that during the initial 2015 outbreak — when a dozen residents died and six staffers were sickened by Legionnaires’ — union members had to learn about crisis from media reports, rather than the home itself.
WBEZ has reported that state public health authorities realized they were in the throes of a possible epidemic on Aug. 21, 2015 but chose not to disclose details about the spread of the waterborne bacteria that can cause the fatal form of pneumonia until Aug. 27.
Wednesday’s legislative fireworks were focused on the refusal by the administration to turn over emails to the committee. Its January request for documents related to the outbreaks was rejected by the Public Health and Veterans’ Affairs departments as too broad and burdensome — reasons the two agencies have repeatedly cited in rejecting similar open records requests by WBEZ.
“It seems to me that there seems to be some type of cover-up,” state Rep. Emanuel Chris Welch, a Hillside Democrat, told Veterans’ Affairs Director Erica Jeffries and Public Health Director Nirav Shah.
Welch then intensified his questioning and engaged in some partisan sniping. He asked Jeffries whether Rauner spent a week at the Quincy home in January because he was “trying to pretend he’s not a failed leader.”
Jeffries, a veteran herself, shot back.
“I think that’s completely out of line, and that’s not a question for me,” she responded.
Then Shah jumped into the fray, displaying what arguably was the hearing’s angriest moment.
“Representative, I want to be very clear for the record and for everyone in the gallery today. Your assumption that there is a cover-up at play is 150,000 percent unfounded, and it’s wholly rejected,” Shah said, his voice raised.
“Where are the emails?” Welch asked.
Both Jeffries and Shah said their agencies intended to be responsive to the committee within the structure of the state Freedom of Information Act, which contains numerous exemptions that allow government bodies to withhold information from the public.
Union: We were left in the dark
The back-and-forth came after testimony from members of AFSCME, the state workers’ union, who also complained about the state’s lack of information during the earliest phase of the 2015 outbreak.
Nettie Smith, a longtime nurse at the facility and AFSCME local president, cited the example of one employee who fell ill on Aug. 15, 2015 — almost two weeks before the public was alerted about Legionnaires’ at the facility — and was off work until Aug. 24 of that year.
“During the time she was off, she was misdiagnosed twice, prescribed three different antibiotics, and had a 24-hour stay in the hospital because her symptoms were not responding to treatment,” Smith said, noting the woman had a high fever and shortness of breath.
Only after her return did she get tested and learn she had Legionnaires’, Smith said.
“Because she had been out sick, with no information from the Quincy veterans’ home, she had no knowledge of the Legionnaires’ outbreak,” Smith said. “We wonder if she had known about the Legionella outbreak, if the Department of Veterans’ Affairs had immediately notified staff when the first outbreak occurred, would she have been so sick for so long?”
The Rauner administration has defended the time it took to make public the two confirmed Legionnaires’ cases, saying it wanted to offer the public a full and accurate accounting of the outbreak.
After Wednesday’s hearing, a Veterans’ Affairs spokesman contradicted the union’s testimony that its members were not adequately informed by the facility in 2015.
“Contrary to witness testimony, [the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs] notified staff in a timely manner through email, town hall meetings, education handouts, and verbal communications,” agency spokesman Dave MacDonna said.
Meanwhile, the Illinois Senate is poised to act on a resolution sponsored by state Sen. Tom Cullerton, a Villa Park Democrat, calling for Auditor General Frank Mautino to investigate the Rauner administration’s responses to the Legionnaires’ outbreaks in Quincy.
Once a vote on the measure happens it will set into motion a monthslong process that would enable Mautino’s office to examine some of the same emails that were the focus of Wednesday’s legislative hearing.
Dave McKinney covers state politics for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter at @davemckinney.