Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner called Thursday for the construction of an “ultra-modern facility” in downstate Quincy to replace a state-run veterans’ home beset by fatal Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks.
The governor also said his administration is considering a short-term plan to buy a nearby, vacant nursing home and construct temporary housing for some of the 352 residents currently at the Quincy home should a decision be made they need to be moved.
But the cost and a completion timeline remained big unknowns after his press conference just five days before the Tuesday gubernatorial primaries, where he faces a challenge from Republican state Rep. Jeanne Ives.
Both she and Democrats have criticized Rauner for not having a specific plan to confront the Legionnaires’ crisis at the Quincy home after outbreaks in three consecutive years. The inability to keep people at the home from getting sickened by Legionnaires’ has emerged as a potent political liability for the governor.
Since 2015, 13 residents there have died from Legionnaires-related causes, and dozens more residents and staff have been sickened from the waterborne bacteria that can cause pneumonia, particularly for those with weakened immune systems like the elderly.
“Long term, our plan is to bring in a planning expert who will work with our campus here and with the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs to plan a whole new facility, a state-of-the-art, super-modern facility that will serve veterans here for the next 50 years,” Rauner told reporters on Thursday.
But he stressed continued research and planning are necessary in the short term and that a new facility will take “a couple of years to put in place.”
“But we’re starting now the planning process so we can get that going. We’re going to try our darnedest to make sure the bureaucracy doesn’t get in our way. We don’t want to have a lot of red tape and restrictions,” Rauner said.
Mike Hoffman, Rauner’s newly installed point person on the Legionnaires’ crisis, cautioned that no decision had been made to move anyone from the home, even though four residents were sickened by Legionnaires' last month.
Hoffman said the administration’s aim is to have design work begun on a new facility by early summer with specific cost estimates available by the fall.
Pressed on when exactly the administration would attach a price tag to what Rauner envisions, Hoffman said, “We’re not going to give a number at this time. But as soon as we have a plan, as soon as we have a reliable number, we will share that with the public, the General Assembly, and certainly pursue the federal option, as well.”
During his appearance at the home Thursday, Rauner grew defensive when asked about criticism from Democratic U.S. Dick Durbin, who has alleged the Rauner administration has mishandled the ongoing public-health crisis in Quincy.
“There’s this false narrative, I think, for political purposes that somehow it’s too slow or why did it take so long,” Rauner said. “Nothing has taken long. We’ve implemented immediately — immediately — everything that’s been recommended. There’s nothing that’s somehow taken too long or that we didn’t do or we waited on. Nothing whatsoever.”
After Rauner’s event, a leading Democratic member of a joint Illinois House-Senate committee investigating the state response to Legionnaires’ in Quincy ridiculed the governor’s long-range strategy for the facility that he outlined Thursday.
“Classic bureaucrats,” said state Sen. William Haine, a Democrat from downstate Alton. “Three years after the crisis began, they’re still talking about options and plans. There have been enough studies and reports and meetings. And that’s all the governor announced today. More studies and reports and meetings. The governor appears stuck on a political treadmill. Just do something already.”
Dave McKinney covers state politics for WBEZ. Follow him @davemckinney.