QUINCY -- The families of 11 Illinois Veterans Home residents who died from Legionnaires' disease have sued the state of Illinois, claiming their loved ones died as a result of negligence.
A representative of the Illinois Court of Claims confirmed that 11 lawsuits related to the outbreak of Legionnaires' disease at the Veterans Home in Quincy since 2015 have been filed. Illinois law caps any potential awards at $100,000.
Thirteen people have died and more than 60 have fallen ill from exposure to Legionella bacteria, which was first reported in August 2015. There have been reports of Legionnaires' disease in each of the last three years, with 12 of those deaths coming in 2015 and another this fall.
WBEZ Radio in Chicago first reported the lawsuits on Tuesday. The station's story says the families contend the Legionnaires' cases were not diagnosed quickly enough by Veterans Home staff and that antibiotic treatments were not started in time to treat the type of pneumonia that the bacteria causes.
The WBEZ story reports that U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois has called for the Veterans Home to be shut down and the residents moved until the facility is purged of the bacteria and deemed safe for residents to return.
However, Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs Director Erica Jeffries told The Herald-Whig Wednesday that the state has no plans to close the facility or to move residents elsewhere.
"We have examined that in the past," Jeffries said, noting that remediation was determined to be the best course of action. "We've done everything we could possibly do. We've implemented every recommendation the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has."
Jeffries said "short of replacing all the plumbing across the (210-acre) campus, the home has been able to substantially reduce the presence of Legionella in its water supply.
"We will continue to implement our water management plan, and at the end of the day, our goal is to not have new cases," Jeffries said.
Frequency of testing outpaces industry standards
Marty Detmer of Phigenics LLC was particularly frustrated by the most recent outbreaks in October and November. The Warrenville company has been hired to help develop a water treatment program at the facility.
"Summer is the hardest time," Detmer said. "I was extremely confident as we went through the summer."
The Legionella bacteria occurs in nature, growing during warm weather. The CDC reports the bacteria is found in rivers and other water sources, and it can develop into Legionnaires' disease among people in poor health.
The clinical diagnosis of three cases this fall shocked him, but he is confident in the protocols in place at the home.
"It's to be held up as a model," he said, noting that the frequency of testing outpaces industry standards and even that of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
A possible 13th Legionella-related death this year may have involved Roy Dehn, an 88-year-old Illinois Veterans Home resident who died Oct. 12 at Blessing Hospital.
IVH officials say the 2017 death was not necessarily the direct result of Legionella because the person who died had some existing medical issues. However, the WBEZ story said the local coroner determined Legionella was a "contributing factor" in Dehn's death.
Dehn's daughter-in-law, Kathleen Dehn, was contacted by The Herald-Whig for a comment. She replied by email: "At the present time we are unable to speak of the conditions under which Roy passed away as we have hired a lawyer."
Rauner defends state's remediation efforts
Citing a report from the CDC, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner said the Veterans Home is doing its best to safeguard residents.
"When the first incidence of Legionella occurred in Quincy, six months into my administration, we quickly brought in the Centers for Disease Control and followed their recommendations," Rauner said in a statement issued Wednesday.
"The state has implemented a robust and comprehensive water management plan including the construction of a new water management plant and routine testing of the water at the facility. The CDC in its most recent report said the remediation is 'aligned with the best practices identified in CDC's water management toolkit.' "
During a visit to Quincy last week, Rauner visited the Veterans Home and met with Administrator Troy Culbertson to get an update on water purification efforts.
State Sen. Jil Tracy, R-Quincy, and Rep. Randy Frese, R-Paloma, had a private meeting with Rauner later, and the Veterans Home was among their top issues.
"We need to keep this home open, and we need to fix any problems," Tracy said.
Tracy said the state has acted appropriately, spending more than $5 million on a water purification system, new water heaters and individual filters on fixtures such as shower heads.
"WBEZ is acting as if nothing has been done," which is not accurate, Tracy said.
Lack of information at heart of lawsuits
At the heart of the lawsuits are claims that the state knew about the Legionella infections but didn't make the information public.
Adams County Coroner Jim Keller said he first learned of the Legionnaires' cases in 2015 through an outside source and not from the Veterans Home.
"I wasn't contacted right away," Keller said. "I found out about it later through (news) reports."
He said that the body of the first victim was released to a funeral home without him being notified, which he admitted is not uncommon.
That was in July 2015. WBEZ reported that the first press release from the state announcing eight confirmed cases of Legionnaires' disease was issued on Aug. 27, 2015.
Gerald Kuhn was one of the 12 residents who died in 2015. The 90-year-old Kuhn was an Army veteran who served in France and Germany during World War II. Family members said he had been in good health until he contracted Legionnaires' disease.
Jana Casper of LaGrange, Mo., one of his daughters interviewed by WBEZ, told The Herald-Whig that closing the home was "not our goal at all" in filing a lawsuit.
Rather, she wishes the Veterans Home would have been more forthcoming with information about the 2015 outbreak of Legionnaires' disease so medical treatment could have been sought sooner for her father and others.
"When my father was there, the nursing staff was very good to him," Casper said. "It's just unfortunate what happened. I think it could have been handled maybe a little differently.
"Our motive was not at all to have the Veterans Home closed."
News Editor Jason Lewton, Senior Writer Doug Wilson, copy editor Andrew Drea, and staff writers Matt Hopf, Matt Dutton, Edward Husar and Ashley Szatala contributed to this report.
This story was sent as a Herald-Whig news alert. Sign up here for future alerts.