May 03, 2021

Durbin, Duckworth ask federal VA to ensure Illinois veterans homes have proper disease planning, protocols after stinging report on LaSalle home, where 36 died from COVID-19

Source: Chicago Tribune


Democratic U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth on Monday asked for federal assistance to ensure Illinois veterans homes have proper infectious disease planning and protocols in place following the release of a stinging report detailing large-scale mismanagement at the LaSalle Veterans Home, where 36 residents died of COVID-19.

In a letter to U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, the two Illinois senators noted the federal VA was part of on-site inspections with state public health officials at the LaSalle home that occurred more than 10 days after the outbreak was discovered on Nov. 1 and detailed a full-time staffer to provide technical assistance to the state.

“We urge the VA to return to Illinois once again to ensure that (the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs) has the appropriate protocols in place, as well as training and support it needs in order to continue to protect Illinois veterans from COVID-19 or any future infectious disease outbreaks,” the senators wrote.

The letter comes just days after a 50-page report from the Illinois Department of Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General and the law firm of Armstrong Teasdale detailed systemic mismanagement from the top of the state’s veterans agency down to the LaSalle home, saying it created an “inefficient, reactive and chaotic” response to controlling the virus.

The report said then-state VA Director Linda Chapa LaVia, a former state lawmaker from Aurora, “abdicated” her responsibilities, leaving things to a nonmedical chief of staff who preferred to let each home manage itself, issued rules contradictory to health guidelines and failed to seek outside help as the outbreak grew.

Chapa LaVia resigned as state VA director in January and did not agree to be interviewed for the report. Her chief of staff, Anthony Kolbeck, submitted his resignation last month.

Pritzker last week acknowledged a failure of leadership in naming Chapa LaVia to the post, telling reporters on Friday, “I have to admit that if I knew then what I know now, I would not have hired her.”

Durbin and Duckworth credited the first-term Democratic governor for steps he took in the outbreak’s aftermath, including hiring a new state veterans affairs secretary, but made it clear they felt it wasn’t enough.

“While we recognize that Gov. Pritzker has taken a number of proactive steps — including personnel changes to replace (Chapa LaVia) and oversight efforts such as requiring this OIG investigation — we remain worried about IDVA’s future preparedness against both the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and other infectious disease outbreaks,” the senators wrote.

“Countless families have entrusted the care of their loved ones — veterans who have served and scarified for this country with honor, and deserve the highest standards — to the State of Illinois,” the senators said. “We urge the VA to help ensure that our state is up to the task in the face of challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The senators also noted that veterans homes at Manteno and Quincy also had fatal outbreaks, though with fewer deaths. They also said the nature of COVID-19 at long-term congregate care facilities with an elderly population was well-known.

“While the death tolls were smaller at these two facilities, the urgency to take corrective action remains the same,” Durbin and Duckworth wrote.

“We understand that the risks associated with the deadly coronavirus are only increased in long-term care facilities. However, as the (office of inspector general) report indicates, the proper implementation and execution of infectious disease protocols can help control outbreaks,” they said.

The federal Veterans Affairs agency had no immediate response to the Illinois senators’ request.

Durbin is the state’s senior senator and a member of the Senate’s Democratic leadership. Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran, formerly headed the state’s veterans affairs agency under Rod Blagojevich and was an assistant U.S. Veterans Affairs secretary in President Barack Obama’s administration before becoming a congresswoman and then U.S. senator.

By:  Rick Pearson