Pritzker: Wouldn’t have hired veterans chief ‘if I knew then what I know now’ — but GOP says LaSalle COVID-19 crisis ‘was avoidable’

Pritzker: Wouldn’t have hired veterans chief ‘if I knew then
what I know now’ — but GOP says LaSalle COVID-19 crisis ‘was
avoidable’ 1

Just hours after the release of a scathing report on the state’s handling of a COVID-19 outbreak at an Illinois veterans’ home, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Friday he wouldn’t have hired the former director of veterans’ affairs had he known she would “abdicate” her responsibilities.

That was essentially the description of former veterans’ affairs chief Linda Chapa LaVia’s handling of the coronavirus crisis in the report from the inspector general of the Illinois Department of Human Services at the LaSalle Veterans Home, where 36 veterans have died of COVID-19.

Several witnesses told the inspector general that LaVia was “not a hands-on or engaged day-to-day Director,” leaving the management of the agency and the veterans homes themselves to her chief of staff.

The report detailed the miscommunications and mismanagement at the state’s department of veterans’ affairs during the outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans Home located about 95 miles south of Chicago.

At an unrelated news conference, Pritzker said he asked for the investigation “so that we would all know what happened and we would all know how to fix it.”

The report confirms “that changes needed to be made” and Pritzker said in hindsight he would not have hired LaVia, a former Democratic state representative he tapped for the job in 2019.

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“When I made the decision to hire her, you have to remember that she led the investigation with the incident that happened at the Quincy veterans home a few years ago, and so she seemed like an ideal person to be able to root out the problems in our veterans homes,” Pritzker said.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks during a news conference earlier this month.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

“But, I have to admit that if I knew then what I know now I would not have hired her.”

At least 13 residents died at the Quincy home during an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease between 2015 and 2018, and dozens more were sickened by it.

In his successful campaign to unseat Gov. Bruce Rauner, Pritzker hammered the Republican for the Legionnaires deaths, accusing him of “fatally mismanaging” the situation.

Now faced with veterans deaths under his own watch, Pritzker said neither he nor the new acting head of the Veterans Affairs Department, will “rest until we’re satisfied that all of our veterans are safe.”

For Republicans, that promise comes too little, too late.

“The governor’s lack of oversight and his agency’s incompetence created this crisis,” House Republican Leader Jim Durkin said at a news conference, calling the report “damning and heartbreaking.”

“As the report details today, there were many failures along the road that led to this tragedy,” Durkin said. “There were many leaders who didn’t step up to provide for the safety of the veterans in our state’s care. We’ve lost 36 honored veterans at LaSalle and many more suffered through a terrifying illness that may cause long term damage. All of this was avoidable.”

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin in 2018.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin in 2018.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

Durkin and fellow GOP Representatives Tom Demmer of Dixon, Deanne Mazzochi of Elmhurst and Dan Swanson of Alpha called for a criminal investigation into the mismanagement of the outbreak.

LaVia did not immediately return a request for comment.

The inspector general’s report, which was released Friday, details what was going on behind the scenes at the veterans’ affairs department during the deadly outbreak that began at the home last fall.

It follows two reports that were released in November that detailed conditions at the LaSalle home, including ineffective hand sanitizer, employees showing up for work after testing positive for the coronavirus and inadequate “hand hygiene.”

Those findings prompted Pritzker and veterans officials to launch an investigation.

And they were followed by the firing of Angela Mehlbrech, then the head of the LaSalle home, in December. She was rarely seen there or outside of her office, according to the inspector general’s report.

Then state Rep. Linda Chapa Lavia of Aurora, left, at an Illinois House committee in 2017.

Then state Rep. Linda Chapa Lavia of Aurora, left, at an Illinois House committee in 2017.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

Along with having no comprehensive COVID-19 plan, task force or committee at the home, the report concluded that department officials consolidated too many responsibilities under LaVia’s chief of staff Tony Kolbeck, and failed to delegate and assign clear responsibilities or learn from outbreaks at other long term care facilities.

The interim head of the LaSalle home, Anthony Vaughn, told the inspector general that Kolbeck took on LaVia’s duties after she basically “abdicated” her authority to the chief of staff.

Kolbeck — who had no experience in long- term care, infection control procedures, or medicine in general — also took on the duties of the senior administrator at the department’s homes, a position that was vacant during the time of the outbreak and requires approval from the governor’s office, according to the report.

After several rounds of interviews to fill that position in late 2019, Pritzker’s office did not approve a candidate. The governor did not address that decision during his Friday news conference.

When LaVia stepped down in January after the coronavirus outbreak claimed 36 lives as the LaSalle home and another 36 at two other state-run veterans homes, Pritzker declined to say whether he had requested the Aurora Democrat’s resignation.

But he characterized it as “a mutual decision that she would step down.”

“What we want to do is restore confidence that people have in our veterans’ affairs department, and we want to do our best to take care of our veterans,” Pritzker said at the time.

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