QUINCY - U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin says he is pleased to see progress being made to protect Illinois Veterans Home residents against outbreaks of Legionnaires' disease, but he believes new facilities are needed to prevent future problems.
"It's time for some of these buildings to go," he said Monday while visiting the IVH campus. "We need more modern facilities that are safer and can really respond to the medical needs of the 21st century."
Durbin offered his comments after meeting with IVH officials. It was his first trip to the campus since January when he expressed concern that not enough was being done to address the Legionnaires' disease outbreak, which has contributed to the deaths of 13 residents since 2015 and sickened dozens more.
"Good things have happened since then," Durbin said Monday after hearing an update on the situation.
"The meeting today was especially encouraging because the steps that are currently being taken are showing some very positive results in terms of the safety for residents and staff," he said.
However, the Democratic senator from Springfield said he is eager to see a final report by two task forces studying options on how to address the Legionnaires' disease situation on a long-term basis. The report is slated to be released this week, possibly Tuesday.
A preliminary report issued by the task forces in early April suggested that a makeover of the Illinois Veterans Home -- costing as much as $278 million -- may be the best option for eradicating the water-borne disease.
The report said options include building a new state-of-the-art residential facility for $250 million; installing new plumbing for up to $15.6 million; drilling a new well as a separate water source for $5.5 million; and possibly buying and renovating a vacant nursing home nearby for $6.8 million to use as temporary housing while the new residential facility is being built.
Durbin said the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is prepared to make a "substantial" investment by paying up to 65 percent of the costs for any new construction.
"Sen. Tammy Duckworth and I are committed to making certain that the federal government makes its investment in the future of the Quincy veterans home," he said.
Durbin said in order to ensure federal funding will be available, the president will have to sign an appropriations bill next year -- similar to one he signed this year bumping up federal funding for the Veterans Administration.
"I feel very confident that at the end of the day there will be that bipartisan support," he said. "When it comes to the VA and investments in our veterans, that seems to be the one area where we can join hands and work together."
Durbin, however, noted that the state of Illinois also would have to make a firm commitment to pay its 35 percent share of any costs for new construction.
"It has to be an investment we can count on," he said.
While making a sweep through West-Central Illinois on Monday, Durbin was slated to stop at Western Illinois University in Macomb to discuss issues related to higher education, including the impact of the state's ongoing budget deficit.
"The budget crisis in Springfield has had a particularly negative impact on university towns downstate," he said. "Some are really struggling. I want to hear about this first-hand."
Durbin also told The Herald-Whig he's concerned that a proposed bill to protect special prosecutor Robert Mueller from being fired without justifiable cause may not get a hearing because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he doesn't feel the bill is necessary.
"I think that's a mistake," Durbin said.
"The bill came out of our committee 14-7 -- a strong bipartisan vote -- and we entered into a bipartisan compromise on the language. So it really was a good-faith effort," he said.
"There are some who are against it for a variety of reasons. Some question the constitutionality of it," he added. "I think it's a mistake for the Republican Senate leader to say we're not going to take this up. This not only applies to the current Mueller investigation (of possible Russian collusion in the 2016 presidential election), but it would apply to independent counsels in the future."
Durbin, who has served in the Senate since January 1997, said he hasn't yet decided if he will seek re-election or retire when his current six-year term expires in January 2021 -- a couple of months after he turns 76.
"I won't make that decision until next year," he said.