Our View: Veterans Affairs personnel changes appropriate, but not surprising

The state’s veterans affairs director has resigned.

The administrator of the La Salle Veterans home was fired.

Two months after a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility led to 36 deaths – a quarter of the resident population – two leaders charged with caring for veterans are out of their jobs.

The moves are appropriate. Just hours before her resignation Monday, Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs Director Linda Chapa LaVia participated in a tense hearing with the House Civil Judiciary committee.

Actually, saying she participated is an exaggeration.

Committee members questioned her handling of the outbreak at the La Salle home, where 36 residents have died of COVID-19 since Nov. 1.

She had few answers.

Three members of the House Civil Judiciary committee — state Reps. Deanne Mazzochi, R-Elmhurst, David Welter, R-Morris, and Daniel Didech, D-Buffalo Grove — issued statements immediately following the hearing.

The lawmakers said Chapa LaVia’s performance during the hearing reflected poor leadership, which caused them to lose confidence in her ability to lead the agency.

We lost confidence with the administration’s lackluster response shortly after the outbreak, as did state Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, who has blasted Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration, demanding an answer why it took 12 days for the Illinois Department of Health to get on site. And after hours of legislative hearings, we still don’t have a clear answer.

Mazzochi wrote in a statement before Chapa LaVia’s resignation that she was “particularly disturbed” that IDVA had outsourced an investigation on to the state Department of Human Services, “with no concurrent self-assessment on the practices and policies that led to the outbreaks.”

“As members of our committee from both sides of the aisle agree, what they heard today was stonewalling of our legislative investigation; and a distinct lack of corrective action being taken by the agency. And, that no steps were taken to ensure the investigative cooperation of the administrator in charge of the facility at the time is an independent critical oversight error,” Mazzochi’s statement read in part.

During the committee hearing, Thapedi also accused Chapa LaVia of a “delay tactic” for not providing information about the outbreak that the committee requested from the facility in December. Chapa LaVia previously promised transparency going forward.

Committee members also grilled Chapa LaVia about several violations reported during a site visit at the facility, including the Nov. 12 site visit report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that documented that the facility was using a non-alcoholic hand sanitizer, staff were using the same disposable gloves for different activities, and some staff were seen not following personal protective equipment guidelines or social distancing. The report also mentions that employees who later tested positive for COVID-19 reportedly attended a Halloween party.

“Don’t you have intellectual curiosity as to why that happens and who was involved, and whether it was … a training issue with employees? This is a facility still within your control, irrespective of what’s going on with the investigation,” Mazzochi said.

Chapa LaVia said her administration is constantly communicating with leadership at all state-run veterans homes.

“But I can’t micromanage my administrators who are licensed,” she said. “It’s not acceptable, the things that are in that report, and that’s why we immediately and aggressively attacked the issues that they brought to us to make sure that that does not happen.”

With the way this outbreak was handled from the top down, is anyone assured this won’t happen again?

“There are still several unanswered questions about procedures and decisions related to the handling of this outbreak,” Rezin said in a statement. “The Governor, IDPH & IDVA have the responsibility to provide those answers to the people of Illinois and the families that have suffered from their inaction.”

Rezin called on Pritzker in an op-ed to commit to having IDPH’s director or assistant director and chief of staff attend future legislative hearings and start answering questions.

Accountability is only a piece of this tragedy. Chapa LaVia and fired administrator Angela Mehlbrech left behind the legacy of leading the agency that oversaw the deadliest outbreak at a state-run facility in Illinois history.

While that history cannot be rewritten, now is the time to rebuild trust with citizens with transparency and, with new leadership, bring to these veterans the care that they deserve.