Eye On Illinois: After vets home audit, time to focus on solutions

Top Republicans are blasting Gov. JB Pritzker for November’s COVID-19 outbreak at the La Salle Veterans Home that killed 36 residents and infected 208 employees.

They definitely should be mad. I was mad when writing Nov. 11, back when only 48 residents and 12 employees had tested positive. Things absolutely snowballed, and although many terrible details emerged in the interim, nothing put so fine a point on the administrative failure as the April 26 report from the Department of Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General.

Armed with that report, Republicans began blistering Pritzker and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“When there are failures, you need to own them,” said state Rep. Dan Swanson, R-Alpha. Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, called for Pritzker to immediately bear responsibility. The state GOP’s social media team was busy Saturday reviving 2018 remarks from Democrats lobbing similar verbal grenades at then-Gov. Bruce Rauner in the wake of a rash of deaths at the Quincy Veterans Home due to a Legionnaire’s disease outbreak.

Yes, two governors, of different parties, could have better protected veterans in the state’s care. There’s no lesser of two evils here. Anyone paying attention is irate we didn’t learn enough lessons from Quincy to prevent La Salle, but scoring political points brings no one back from the dead.

That said, Swanson was right to point out Pritzker’s campaign leveraged Rauner’s bungling to its advantage. The La Salle debacle cheapens what Pritzker said then and underscores his own failures now. But where does that get us?

Some came with clear directives. Demmer wants Pritzker to propose systematic, preventive changes. State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, was among the first to demand the Illinois Auditor General conduct its own investigation, as it did for Quincy. House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, wants the Attorney General’s Office to conduct a criminal investigation. Although a two-year look at Quincy closed with no criminal charges, it seems fair to give this catastrophe equal scrutiny.

Three people already lost jobs: the state fired Home Administrator Angela Melbrech and IDVA Director Linda Chapa LaVia, and her Chief of Staff Tony Kolbeck recently resigned. No one in GOP leadership has called for Pritzker to step down, likely because it wouldn’t solve anything.

Actually solving the problem requires a forward focus. Pritzker wears this millstone heading into campaign season, but he also is among the most powerful in effecting useful change. So long as he’s in office, it’s easier to hold his feet to the fire.

Crimes, if any, should be prosecuted. I’ll pay closer attention to those proposing substantive reform, such as Senate Bill 2251, which directly addresses veterans’ home outbreaks.

No one should skirt blame. But our collective focus should be on solutions.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Local News Network. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.