Governor Bruce Rauner’s administration signaled on Monday that new residences may be built at the state veterans’ home in downstate Quincy, where 13 people have died from Legionnaires’ disease since 2015.
State Veterans’ Affairs Director Erica Jeffries told a legislative panel that replacing several buildings at the state’s oldest and largest veterans’ home with “state-of-the-art” facilities is now under consideration, and a formal blueprint of the construction plan could be released this spring.
Her pronouncement is somewhat of a departure from the pledge Rauner made in January after spending a week at the home. Then, the governor pledged an overhaul to a plumbing system that federal public health authorities consistently have identified as a culprit behind successive outbreaks.
Since then, four more residents at the home have been sickened, including one man whom Rauner befriended during his stay and invited as a guest to the State of the State address in Springfield in early February.
Now, Jeffries said that simply zeroing in on the plumbing system is no longer a “prudent solution.”
“We do not want to spend years tearing up 70-year-old buildings to put brand new piping in when we know that might not be a total solution,” she said Monday during a joint House-Senate hearing, the fourth since a WBEZ investigation in December raised questions about the state’s handling of the 2015 outbreak.
Jeffries said the administration intends to lay out a preliminary set of recommendations on fixes at the Quincy facility by March 31, with a formal outline expected by May 1.
That timeline, however, was met with criticism and, in one case, sarcasm from some Democrats on the panel.
“It’s only taken us three years to get here. Three years. Thirteen lives. Countless people sick. That’s a great answer for 2016, not for 2018,” said state Sen. Cristina Castro, an Elgin Democrat. “We can’t wait ‘til May. How many more people are going to get sick?”
Monday’s hearing in Chicago turned into a contentious affair as Jeffries and state Public Health Director Nirav Shah were called on the carpet by the committee for not following through on a 2016 study commissioned by the state that offered an $8 million plan to target the Legionnaires’ threat at the home.
At one point, state Sen. Sam McCann, a Republican from downstate Plainview who has clashed with the governor in the past, confronted Shah with unusually blunt language about the Rauner administration’s inability to stop residents at the home from contracting Legionnaires.’
“You, sir, disgust me,” McCann told Shah.
“You are entitled to that opinion, senator,” Shah responded.
McCann previously has called for Shah’s resignation. The lawmaker is one of Rauner’s chief Republican critics after having fended off a concerted push by the governor in 2016 to unseat him because of his close ties to the state public-sector union AFSCME, with whom the governor has fought bitterly.
After the hearing, staffers tried to deflect questions by attempting to rush Shah and Jeffries past reporters outside the hearing room in Chicago.
Shah declined to respond more thoroughly to McCann’s fireworks inside the hearing. The public health director also would not respond to a question about an exclusive WBEZ story last week on state emails related to the Quincy outbreaks.
With the two directors momentarily cornered at a freight elevator whose doors wouldn’t open, Jeffries declined to offer more detail on her construction plan. An agency spokeswoman tried to shut down the impromptu question-and-answer session.
When asked why she wouldn’t respond, Jeffries lashed out at reporters, saying, “Generally I prefer to speak with journalists who have journalistic integrity.”
Pressed on to whom she was referring, Jeffries remained silent and headed to another bank of elevators in the state building before exiting the floor.