CHICAGO -- The head of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs said it may not be practical to spend millions to replace significant sections of plumbing at the Illinois Veterans Home as a way to fight Legionnaires' disease because "many of those buildings will not exist" five years from now.
Veterans' Affiars Director Erica Jeffries told a joint committee of the Illinois Senate and House on Monday that the department is working on a "master plan" for the Veterans Home campus that is likely to call for demolishing a number of buildings where Legionnaires' disease has been a problem and replacing them with new construction.
Jeffries said the Quincy campus will look "quite a bit different" once the master plan is carried out in coming years, but she didn't offer any details because the plan is still in development.
"All of this is very preliminary," Jeffries testified during the 2 1/2-hour hearing in Chicago, which was broadcast over the internet and "live" to Veterans Home residents.
Much of the testimony at Monday's hearing focused on what the state is doing in response to a series of Legionnaires' disease outbreaks at the home, where 13 deaths and more than 60 illnesses have been reported since 2015. Four new cases of the illness have been diagnosed so far this year. The most recent report surfaced Feb. 20.
Jeffries said the Department of Veterans' Affairs already has taken quite a few steps to attack the Legionella bacteria in the home's water system, which has been blamed for the illnesses. In June 2016, for example, the home started using a new $6.5 million water treatment system that reduced the Legionella level down to 12 percent from a high of 84 percent seen in 2015. Since then, she said, additional steps have reduced the Legionella level to 2 percent.
A state report that came out in August 2016 suggested other possible options for attacking the Legionnaires' disease problem. One option called for replacing the underground pipes that deliver water to a dozen of the home's most Legionella-prone buildings.
In response to questions from legislators, Jeffries said the Department of Veterans' Affairs took no action immediately on the proposal to replace so much plumbing because the new water treatment system had just gone online in June 2016 and state officials wanted to check its efficacy before making any other significant and costly changes.
She said the water treatment system produced a drastic reduction in Legionella bacteria.
On top of that, Jeffries said, the state has been changing out the faucets and shower heads in each residential unit and is also adding new micron filters designed to screen any Legionella bacteria. She said all living areas are expected to have the new equipment installed by the end of next week.
State Sen. Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said the General Assembly is eager to hear a dollar figure on what it will cost to make necessary changes at the Veterans Home to help safeguard residents and employees from any further outbreaks of Legionnaires' disease.
"The No. 1 goal for us is to find a solution," he said.
Jeffries said two task forces appointed by Gov. Bruce Rauner have been studying infrastructure investment needs and water management issues at the Veterans Home. She expects the Department of Veterans' Affairs to release a "rough draft" of the task force recommendations by March 31, with a final report slated to come out by May 1.
"We want to make sure we're doing our due diligence" before asking the General Assembly for any specific support, she said.
Jeffries said Veterans' Affairs officials "continue to explore all options" for dealing with the Legionella situation, including one idea that surfaced recently about moving residents temporarily to the former Sycamore Healthcare Center two blocks away while improvements are made at the Veterans Home.
However, state Sen. Jil Tracy, R-Quincy, noted at Monday's hearing that the Sycamore facility's water system would have to be tested for the Legionella bacteria, and if found, "we might run into very similar situations" as at the Veterans Home.
Jeffries said moving the home's residents to another location also could results in "transfer trauma" for some patients.
Jeffries handled most of the questions asked by members of the House and Senate at Monday's hearing. Also taking questions were Nirav Shah, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, and Amy Romano, acting director of the Illinois Capital Development Board.
Shah testified that the Department of Public Health immediately implemented a Legionella response plan after a second case of Legionnaires' diseases surfaced at the Veterans Home in August 2015. He said state agencies, working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have been following the plan "to the letter."
However, Shah said it's been difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate the Legionella bacteria completely because Legionella is "ubiquitous" in the environment and can be found just about anywhere "if you go looking for it."
A new hospital in downtown Chicago was found to test positive for Legionella in its water, he said.
"Even the newest, most technologically advanced hospitals can harbor the Legionella bacteria," Shah said.
Several legislators brought up complaints that the state delayed telling families of Legionnaires' disease victims about the original outbreak of the disease. Some also expressed frustration that remedial steps aren't being taken quicker.
For example, state Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, said he's concerned that the task forces appointed to study the Legionella situation at the Veterans Home might take too long to complete their work, considering that new cases continue to arise.
"Every day we wait, people are in further harm's way," he said.