QUINCY — Two months after pledging to help find money for upgrades at the Illinois Veterans Home, Gov. Bruce Rauner was back Thursday, calling for construction of a new state-of-the-art facility on the Quincy campus.
“We want to make this the best veterans home in America,” Rauner said. “All I care about is that our veterans are well cared for.”
The state posted a request for proposals for a master planning contract Thursday. This fall, officials hope to choose a design and know how much it will cost to build “a world-class facility.”
Several Veterans Home residents of the home applauded Rauner’s announcement and were pleased to hear that the home, which was founded in 1886, will continue to serve the needs of veterans.
Rauner said construction of “ultramodern buildings” will probably take a few years, but to have options in the interim, he said the state plans to buy a former nursing home two blocks from the Veterans Home. Crews would then renovate the structure and prepare it for occupancy if residents need to be moved to protect them from Legionella bacteria.
A Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in 2015 led to 12 deaths and more than 50 illnesses. There have been less serious outbreaks in recent years, with one death in 2017 where Legionella was one of several contributing factors. Four residents have contracted ailments connected to Legionella this year.
Rauner said the Sycamore Healthcare Center facility at 720 Sycamore is only blocks from the Veterans Home. The 26,000-square-foot building closed in April 2017. It has 102 rooms and was licensed for 205 beds when it closed.
Veterans Home Administrator Troy Culbertson called the Sycamore facility an option if residents must be moved from Vets Home campus. It also would be close enough that the home’s 500 caregivers and support staff could handle duties there.
“Sycamore could potentially be a swing space or for future building,” Culbertson said, but there are no plans in place to move residents.
Rauner also said the state is considering the use of new modular buildings on the Veterans Home grounds, which could serve as temporary residence halls if necessary.
Mike Hoffman, a senior adviser to Rauner in charge of Legionella eradication efforts in Quincy, said “we do not have numbers at this time,” for the building program’s cost. Other cost estimates have been publicized in the past but did not rely on an overall plan.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin issued a news release shortly before Rauner spoke, saying the governor’s administration has “failed to adequately address the public health crisis.”
Rauner said it’s not appropriate to play political football with the home and anybody who says the health crisis has been mishandled is weaving “a false narrative.”
Richard “Hap” Northern, who retired as administrator of the Veterans Home in 1987, said the facility has been neglected over the past 30 years. Northern believes if state officials had made investments as they were needed, the Legionella outbreaks might not have happened.
Bob Ericson, a Quincy native who has lived at the home for the past nine years, said the care provided is excellent.
“We have a unit here that’s the flagship of the Illinois veterans home (network), and I’m for everything we can do to move this thing forward,” Ericson said.
Dale Hill, commander of American Legion Post 37 in Quincy, was pleased to see Rauner planning for new facilities that will meet the needs of younger veterans.
“We need to be getting things in place because the younger veterans are probably going to have greater needs than the veterans who are here now,” Hill said.
He also was pleased to hear Rauner confirm that health care officials have recommended against moving the 360 veterans in the Quincy home elsewhere. Hill had made his own concerns known when he testified for Illinois Senate and House committees holding hearings on the Legionella control efforts.
“Moving would put these residents at far greater risk than keeping them where they are right now,” Hill said.