Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker spent almost his entire campaign last year denigrating former Gov. Bruce Rauner for his “fatal mismanagement” of multiple, fatal Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks at the state-run Quincy veterans’ home.
But on Tuesday, with Pritzker having inherited the problems at the Illinois Veterans Home, some of his key appointees struggled to tell a legislative panel exactly what they are doing after more than 100 days in power that is any different than under the former administration.
Acting Veterans’ Affairs Director Linda Chapa LaVia opened the hearing before the joint House-Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee by saying she would not be answering any questions about pending litigation or a criminal probe related to the state’s mishandling of the Quincy outbreaks.
But from there, the former House Democrat and chairwoman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee sidestepped a series of basic questions about a recent state audit, water-testing results at the Quincy facility or new notification protocols put in place by lawmakers to deal with future Legionnaires’ outbreaks there.
WBEZ spent more than a year investigating Legionnaires’ outbreaks at the Quincy home in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 that sickened dozens of residents and staff there and were linked to 14 deaths.
During the 2015 outbreak that killed 12 residents, the state waited six days from the point it knew there were multiple confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ to notify the public about the presence of the waterborne illness that can cause a fatal form of pneumonia, particularly in people with weakened immune systems.
In response to WBEZ’s reporting, state lawmakers passed eight different legislative measures, including one requiring 24-hour notification of Legionnaires’ outbreaks, a measure Chapa LaVia voted for.
When asked how her agency has implemented that new law, Chapa LaVia said calls and letters are to go out to residents, family members and the public within 24 hours of an outbreak, but she struggled when pressed for exact protocols.
“I don’t, in front of me, have the step by step,” she told the committee.
She also was asked by state Sen. Paul Schimpf, the ranking Senate Republican on the committee, about whether water testing at the facility still turns up sporadic cases of Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’. Chapa LaVia struggled to answer a fundamental question on how frequently water gets tested at Quincy and the state’s three other veterans’ homes.
“So every one of our locations are tested twice a week. I’m sorry. Twice. Sorry. Every two weeks, every one of our water systems throughout the homes are tested,” she said.
State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, an Aurora Democrat who co-chaired Tuesday’s hearing, pressed Chapa LaVia on whether any new record-keeping standards had been put into place at the home after a state audit this spring criticized lax patient monitoring and record-keeping during the outbreaks.
Last year, WBEZ reported about one resident, Dolores French, who contracted Legionnaires’ and was found dead in her unit at the home. The coroner at the time estimated her body had been there for as long as 48 hours. After her death, a nursing supervisor entered a timeline into her medical log that showed staff had purportedly checked on her in her room during that period when she apparently was dead. State rules require such medical record keeping to be kept current at all times.
During a testy back and forth with Kifowit, Chapa LaVia would not answer whether any additional record-keeping oversight had been put into place at the home.
After the hearing, Kifowit expressed frustration at the lack of answers to germane questions.
“Hopefully, in the future, we’ll get those questions answered,” Kifowit said. “It’s a bit disappointing.”
Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover state politics and government for WBEZ. Follow them @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold.