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Rauner leaves vets home, vows water systems upgrade after Legionnaires’ deaths

Flanked by residents of the Illinois Veterans Home, Gov. Bruce Rauner held a news conference Wednesday at Smith Hall on the campus of the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy, Ill. Rauner has been staying at the facility since last week to better understand the operations of the home after it experienced a Legionnaires' disease outbreak. | Phil Carlson/The Quincy Herald-Whig, distributed by the Associated Press

He slept in the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy. He drank the water. He got schooled in “Connect Four.” And he walked to the public shower with a towel wrapped around his waist.

Breaking his public silence after spending a week at the troubled state-run home, Gov. Bruce Rauner also said he wants to replace and upgrade “water systems” there and is considering the possibility of a brand-new facility on the campus.

“Let me be crystal clear, I do not support closing this facility. Period,” Rauner said. “I would be delighted, I would be honored, proud — no hesitation whatsoever — to have any member of my family come and live here.”

The home is the site where 13 residents have died from Legionnaires’ disease since July 2015. Rauner faced a backlash over the state’s response to the outbreak, which was outlined in a WBEZ report. And the issue has been at the forefront for the many forces vying against Rauner in the upcoming election.

On Wednesday, Rauner repeatedly said his administration has followed all of the recommended procedures in dealing with the issues at the home. But while praising the staff at the facility, he said the campus faces challenges and needs to be updated.

“We want to do everything possible to keep our veterans safe and protect their quality of life,” he said.

Rauner said there are immediate plans — within the coming weeks — to replace and upgrade the water systems in the building.

“That’s the next step that we can take to get to the goal of zero Legionella bacteria anywhere on this campus,” Rauner said.

He said he wants the plumbing to be “modern and world-class.”

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On Tuesday, during a four-hour hearing of the joint House-Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee in Chicago, Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs Director Erica Jeffries said it would cost at least $25 million to replace all the plumbing, some of which is more than 80 years old.

During the same hearing, Jeffries and Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, defended their response to the Legionnaires’ crisis.

“Your best is not good enough, Dr. Shah — it’s atrocious,” said Democratic Sen. Cristina Castro, of Elgin. “Where’s the plan? I’m tired of Band-Aids. I’m tired of excuses.”

In addition to working on the plumbing, Rauner said he’s putting together a committee to look at remodeling and possibly building a brand-new facility on the campus.

“We will leave no stone unturned to arrange the financing,” Rauner said. “Whatever we need to get the best for our veterans, we will go and get that money and bring it here to invest in high-quality residences for our heroes.”

Rauner described the quality of life at the facility as “wonderful.” He said he’d eaten all but two meals at the home, leaving briefly for personal business and a prior commitment. He described the food as “mostly very good.” He said he was awakened during the night every four hours to have his temperature taken.

“I’ve drunken the water from the sinks, as well as other sources,” he said.