In wake of LaSalle COVID-19 outbreak report, bipartisan agreement on further investigation

(The Center Square) – Ensuring department directors are qualified to lead a state department is one area some Republicans and Democrats say should be a focus in the aftermath of the LaSalle Veterans’ Home COVID-19 outbreak.

Members of both parties also agree on the need for more hearings into the matter. Just how soon hearings should happen is where there’s a difference.

Last fall’s deadly COVID-19 outbreak in LaSalle killed 36 residents. In total, 109 veterans and 116 employees tested positive for COVID-19.

Veterans Affairs committee chair state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, D-Oswego, said she plans another hearing about the inspector general report released Friday covering the state’s mishandling of the outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home.

“I think that the communication with [Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs] is key, and why did IDVA not reach out,” Kifowit said. “Why did they not accept help when help was offered them. Why were their staff not properly trained on just the basics? I think there’s a lot to be done with that.”

State Rep. Randy Frese, R-Quincy, said the meeting should have been either Monday or Tuesday, or sometime this week instead of next week.

“I would suggest anyway she can move that up, expedite it in any way shape or form that she should do so,” Frese said.

Republicans also said more investigation, including from law enforcement or convening a grand jury, is appropriate to ensure full accountability.

Last month, the House passed a resolution triggering an independent review of the situation from the Illinois Auditor General.

Kifowit said after Friday’s report highlighting failures, lawmakers should work at requiring directors to have certain qualifications before getting the job.

“To have minimum qualifications for the director so that we just don’t pick just a random person to be heading the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs,” Kifowit said.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker Friday said he made the wrong choice in former Director Linda Chapa LaVia, saying he hired her because she was integral in investigating the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak several years ago at the Quincy Veterans’ Home.

“She seemed like an ideal person to be able to root out the problems in our veterans’ homes, but I have to admit that if I knew then what I know now, I would not have hired her,” Pritzker said.

Republicans said Pritzker used the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak as a political bludgeon against former Gov. Bruce Rauner in the 2018 election.

State Rep. David Welter, R-Morris, said the buck stops with the governor. He said the governor should have sought someone with the necessary experience.

“The health background and the overall policy experience to properly lead our veterans’ affairs department and instead he did another political appointee and look where we are today,” Welter said.

Chapa LaVia has since been replaced by Terry Prince, who Pritzker’s office said has experience leading veterans homes in Ohio.

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