Rauner task force urges rebuilding Quincy vet home, email suggests blame shift
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The task force Gov. Bruce Rauner created to help solve a deadly Legionnaires’ crisis at the Illinois Veterans Home in Downstate Quincy on Tuesday recommended that the home be completely reconstructed to the tune of $202 million to $245 million.
But even as the governor’s task force urged comprehensive solutions, a new email uncovered by WBEZ shone a light on the administration’s earlier efforts to shift blame for the crisis.
“We can maybe tie this back to Duckworth,” the governor’s deputy chief of staff Darlene Senger wrote in a Dec. 13 email obtained through a WBEZ open-records request. Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth ran the state agency under former Democratic Governors Pat Quinn and Rod Blagojevich.
Senger is running for state comptroller, challenging Democratic incumbent Susana Mendoza.
Asked for comment on the email, Rauner spokeswoman Rachel Bold said “Our office has focused on the veterans at the Quincy Veterans Home and their health and safety. We are engaged in ongoing large-scale remediation efforts, while providing top quality skilled nursing care and planning for the future of the home and its residents.”
Thirteen residents of the veterans home have died of Legionnaires’ disease since 2015, and dozens more have contracted the severe form of pneumonia.
The issue has been a thorny one for Rauner — who faces a contentious gubernatorial election come November.
The task force issued four recommendations, stating that “anything less than complete reconstruction will fall short.” The report recommends building a new nursing facility that could house up to 300 residents. The estimated cost is between $190 and $230 million.
The task force also recommends constructing a new, underground “water loop” that feeds existing buildings and new construction.
“New piping would remove the current system, which is suspected to contain significant amounts of mature biofilm — biofilm which may be harboring biological organisms” the report says. The report says all plumbing and piping must also be replaced, with the new plumbing loop estimated at $2.2 million and the new piping estimated at $13.4 million.
The other recommendations include developing an alternate water source and making improvements to the existing water treatment facility and purchasing and renovating an off-site facility to temporarily house residents during construction and demolition of the original campus. The report notes “the asking price of the building is $795,000 and construction costs for this project are under review and tentatively estimated at $5M-6M.”
The estimated cost of complete reconstruction is between $202 million and $245 million, the report notes. It must be approved by the Illinois General Assembly.
State Sen. Tom Cullerton, chairman of the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee, said he is still reviewing the report’s recommendations but has an appropriations measure already filed to try to expedite the process.
“I’m willing to work, as I always have been, with the Rauner administration. I just wish that we didn’t have to wait until May 1,” Cullerton said of the report.
He said staff will work to ensure the numbers are accurate: “A month ago the estimate was $260 million to $280 million. A year ago it was $500 million. The numbers keep changing so I really need an actual number to run a bill and I need an analysis to get that done.”
Rauner in January created the Combined Veterans’ Capital Needs Task Force, with one group tackling investment and the other dealing with water management. The group is made of health experts, veterans’ advocates, state legislators, federal officials and Rauner’s staff.
The governor in March tapped Michael Hoffman, acting head of the Illinois Department of Central Management Services to take over the state’s response to the Legionnaires’ disease “crisis.”
Rauner has been criticized along with state health officials for handling of the crisis. Emails obtained by WBEZ indicated officials knew about the outbreak for nearly a week before alerting the public. Eleven families are suing the state.
In January, Rauner spent several nights at the home “to gain a more thorough understanding of the clinical, water-treatment and residential operations of the home,” a spokeswoman said at the time
Democratic gubernatorial challenger J.B. Pritzker has continually hammered Rauner over the outbreak, labeling the governor’s handling of it “fatal mismanagement.”
Erica Jeffries, the director of Rauner’s beleaguered Department of Veterans’ Affairs, is stepping down after months of controversy over the agency’s oversight of the outbreak. The governor’s office last week confirmed Jeffries’ resignation after WBEZ obtained emails Friday revealed her last day would be May 18. She is taking a job in the private sector, the governor’s office said.