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Veterans and others who have complaints about the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs will have a new outlet to voice their concerns under a state law that’s going into effect without Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature.
The Democratic governor, whose reelection campaign this year will face tough questions over his administration’s handling of a deadly 2020 coronavirus outbreak at a state-run veterans home in LaSalle, did not sign or veto the proposal within 60 days after it reached his desk, meaning it automatically becomes law.
Republicans were quick to attack Pritzker for failing to act on the bill, a lapse the administration blamed on “an internal miscommunication” that allowed the proposal to fall through the cracks.
Pritzker’s administration “worked closely with the sponsors ... and he wholeheartedly supports the legislation becoming law,” spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said in a statement Tuesday.
Pritzker missed the signing deadline after a planned ceremony was delayed due to the most recent COVID-19 surge, she said.
“We look forward to celebrating the enormous progress this new law will make in the weeks ahead once we can ensure we can hold an in person event safely,” Abudayyeh said.
The measure, sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit of Oswego and Democratic state Sen. Tom Cullerton of Villa Park, was approved in October without opposition in both legislative chambers.
It creates a veterans’ accountability unit within the state VA, with a director to be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. While it will operate independently of the department, the new unit will be funded out of the agency’s budget.
The new office will be responsible for hearing complaints and recommendations from veterans and others who receive services from the department, residents of the state-run veterans homes and their families, and agency staff, contractors and vendors.
The inspector general for the governor’s office will be responsible for investigating complaints, but the new unit will be charged with making sure all complaints are reported to the inspector general for review.
After a scathing inspector general’s report last spring on the handling of the COVID-19 outbreak in late 2020 that killed 36 residents of the LaSalle veterans home, Pritzker said he erred in hiring former Democratic state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia to led the agency.
Chapa LaVia resigned in January 2021 and did not agree to be interviewed by the inspector general’s office for its investigation.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle took issue with the Pritzker administration’s handling of the outbreak, but the criticisms from Republicans were particularly pointed.
During his successful campaign to unseat then-Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2018, Pritzker blasted the GOP incumbent for the deaths of veterans at the state-run home in Quincy during outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease.
Republican Sen. Sue Rezin of Morris, a co-sponsor of the legislation whose district includes in the LaSalle home, said in a statement Wednesday that Pritzker’s failure to act on the veterans’ accountability unit proposal is part of his administration’s “a history of making careless mistakes when caring for veterans with catastrophic consequences.”
“Fortunately for them, this one didn’t lead to 36 veterans dying,” Rezin said.
Rezin and other Republicans have criticized the administration for taking more than a week to send state health officials to LaSalle after the 2020 outbreak began.
Pritzker administration officials have said local health departments have the primary responsibility for investigating outbreaks and that state public health officials were in regular contact with the state VA about the outbreak.