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Lawmaker rips Rauner on Legionnaires’ response at vets’ home

By John O’Connor 
AP Political Writer

SPRINGFIELD — A Democratic state senator ripped Gov. Bruce Rauner Tuesday over the Legionnaires’ disease crisis at the Quincy veterans home, saying the Republican’s administration has been sitting on viable options for more than a year and officials “need to make a decision and get it done.”

Sen. William Haine was incensed Rauner cabinet members did not attend a committee hearing to answer questions about an August 2016 report obtained by The Associated Press last week. It showed replacing antiquated plumbing would cost $8 million, far less than what Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs Director Erica Jeffries has repeatedly told lawmakers was the cost listed in the report.

Legionnaires’, caused by bacteria in water vapor that’s inhaled, has contributed to the deaths of 13 residents at the Quincy home since 2015, and sickened dozens more. The Illinois Department of Public Health announced late Tuesday that another case has been diagnosed, the fourth in a week. One of the new cases includes a veteran who was Rauner’s guest at his Jan. 31 State of the State address.

“They have the facts, they need to make a decision and get it done,” said Haine, a veteran who was awarded the Bronze Star for combat heroism in Vietnam. “People are suffering with this state of affairs and we’re spinning around with alternatives that should have been decided years ago.”

Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Cullerton called the hearing in response to the AP’s report last Friday. The Villa Park Democrat said it wasn’t until after the AP obtained the report through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act that senators were given copies.

Cullerton said the Veterans’ Affairs Department, the Illinois Department of Public Health, and the Capital Development Board — which ordered the 2016 survey by Belleville-based engineers BRiC Partnership — told him they could not attend the hearing. CDB spokeswoman Leslie Strain said BRiC should provide input but short notice made it impossible.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted in reports since the crisis began in 2015 that decades-old, galvanized steel pipes that have corroded and filled with sediment are likely Legionella bacteria breeding grounds. When WBEZ Chicago reported in December that the malady had returned in 2016 and 2017, contributing to another death last fall, Jeffries said that new plumbing could cost more than $500 million. When questioned in January, Jeffries said that number was a wild speculation and that an engineering report estimated a cost of $25 million to $30 million.

Her spokesman did not respond last week when the AP questioned why she used those numbers when the BRiC report estimated $8 million for plumbing replacement and nearly a dozen more options — from drilling a well for a new source of water to additional high-tech filtration — for a total of $17 million.

“Why didn’t we get that information from the get-go if they’ve been sitting on it?” asked Sen. Cristina Castro, an Elgin Democrat, holding up the BRiC report. “I don’t even know if they’ve read this.”

Sen. Paul Schimpf, a Waterloo Republican, defended the administration, saying cabinet agencies were just invited on Sunday to testify. But even Schimpf, a Marine lieutenant colonel in the Iraq War, didn’t receive the report until Tuesday morning.

Rauner spokeswoman Rachel Bold said the administration continues “work to eliminate risks to residents” and that “as we solidify our options in coordination with CDC scientists, our plans will be laid out.”

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, was scheduled to tour the Quincy home Tuesday with CDC staff members. A letter she sent last week urges the CDC to step up its involvement in responding to the problem.

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