A joint House-Senate bipartisan hearing was held at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield Wednesday morning on the Illinois Veterans' Home in Quincy.
The hearing comes after 13 veterans died at the home since 2015 in connection with Legionnaire's disease.
This was the second hearing on the home. The first took place in Chicago earlier this year.
Dale Hill, commander of American Legion Post 37 in Quincy was the first to testify. Hill was supportive of efforts to rid the home of Legionnaire's, but not closing the home. He noted that it shouldn't have taken 3 years and a governors visit for Blessing Hospital to test for Legionella.
2 officials with AFSCME, the union who represents 350 employees at the vets' home, also spoke at the hearing. AFSCME's Quincy Chapter President Nette Smith said she learned about the outbreak from Facebook. She said the superintendent should have sent a letter to staff. She believes that because information was not shared faster an employee was sickened.
Ann Irving, Director of Public Policy with AFSCME Council 31, said transparency and appropriate staffing needs to improve at the home.
Irving said there should be a legionella committee to increase sharing information with staff and families. She said communication during the 2015 outbreak was mostly word of mouth. She said staff at the vets' home learned of the 2015 outbreak through news media reports.
Smith said swift action was not taken in 2015 when the outbreak began.
Irving reiterated that filling nursing staff vacancies at the vets' home need to be a top priority.
The room got heated when Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Nirav Shah and the head of the Illinois Veterans Affairs Erica Jeffries testified.
Senator Chris Welch wanted to know when Governor Rauner knew about the 2015 vets' home outbreak and what he specifically knew. He demanded emails for all information between the agencies and governor's office. Shah said there hasn't been a Freedom of Information Act request for the emails.
Jeffries said they would be happy to provide emails in accordance with FOIA guidelines.
"There seems to be a cover up," Welch said. He said he felt information was being intentionally withheld because emails related to the outbreak were not produced.
Shah fired back, saying a cover-up is false.
Sen. Cristina Castro also voiced frustration. She said the committee isn't getting complete information and feels VA and IDPH leaders could be more forthcoming.
"Your best is not good enough," Castro said towards the agency leaders.
Jeffries said a task force would be created to come up with a vets' home water management plan which would be submitted in ninety days. He said a second task force was created for new construction and building a new facility.
Acting Director of Capitol Development Board Amy Romano testified that $15 million in federal funds is available for a vets' home plumbing overhaul, but bill language has the money tied up. She said an Illinois senate bill is in the works to tweak the language and free up the funds.
After the hearing, Jeffries released the following statement:
“I refute any allegations that we have been less than transparent about the Legionella outbreak at the Quincy Veterans Home.
Contrary to witness testimony, IDVA notified staff in a timely manner through email, town hall meetings, educational handouts and verbal communications. The Department also responded to the AFSCME Union and provided feedback to their questions 1 day after receiving them.
The IDVA, in conjunction with IDPH and the CDC, immediately implemented remediation strategies to gain control of the situation. Our remediation efforts, along with the care provided by my staff, helped save the lives of many veterans.”
Members of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee include:
Members of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee include:
For extensive Veterans' Home coverage click here.