Rauner names interim head of beleaguered Veterans’ Affairs department

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Gov. Bruce Rauner on Thursday named Elisabeth Pennix the interim head of the state’s Veterans’ Affairs Department. | LinkedIn photo

Gov. Bruce Rauner on Thursday named a U.S. Navy veteran and state general counsel to be interim head of the state’s beleaguered Department of Veterans’ Affairs, after months of controversy over the agency’s oversight of a deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at the veterans home in downstate Quincy.

Elisabeth Pennix, the current general counsel for the state’s Veterans’ Affairs department, will serve as the interim director of the agency until a permanent director is announced, the governor’s office said.

Erica Jeffries announced her resignation last month after leading the department for three years. Jeffries is returning to the private sector where she’ll serve as an “executive in a large multinational, Fortune 100 company,” the governor’s office said.

The governor’s office said under Jeffries’ leadership, the department provided “quality skilled” nursing care to more than 900 veterans annually and helped thousands of veterans file claims for benefits and compensation totaling more than $208 million.

Since 2015 — the year Rauner appointed Jeffries to the post — 13 residents at the Quincy home have died of Legionnaires’, and dozens more have been sickened by the severe form of pneumonia.

Rauner famously spent several nights at the home in January “to gain a more thorough understanding of the clinical, water-treatment and residential operations of the home,” a spokeswoman said at the time.

The governor has drawn harsh criticism over the crisis, especially after WBEZ reported that officials knew about the outbreak for nearly a week before alerting the public. Democratic gubernatorial challenger J.B. Pritzker has continually hammered Rauner over the outbreak, labeling it a “fatal mismanagement.”

Rauner has since appointed a task force which recommended the home be completely reconstructed. Earlier he assigned a top aide to take over the state’s response to the outbreak.

The families of 11 residents who died are suing the state.

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