Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald on Monday compared wait times at VA hosptial facilities to those at Disneyland, in remarks that are facing fierce backlash from veterans groups and members of Congress.
“When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? Or what’s important? What’s important is, what’s your satisfaction with the experience?” McDonald said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast. “And what I would like to move to, eventually, is that kind of measure.”
Scores of social media users were quick to point out that dozens of veterans have died waiting for medical treatment at VA facilities, a revelation that led to the resignation of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and a renewed focus on the troubled agency.
McDonald, former CEO of consumer giant Procter & Gamble, was explaining to reporters at the breakfast his desire for the VA to move toward a satisfaction-based measure of healthcare at the department's facilities, rather than evaluating it based solely on wait times.
McDonald was roundly criticized in conservative circles on Monday. House Speaker Paul Ryan tweeted, "This is not make-believe, Mr. Secretary." Meanwhile, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump used McDonald's remarks to slam Hillary Clinton, his likely general election rival, tweeting, "I will take care of our vets!"
Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said the comparison to wait times at Disneyland was "just plain wrong."
"In fact, the VA scandal over fraudulent wait times ... is precisely why McDonald is now VA secretary," Miller said in a statement. "Unfortunately, nearly two years after McDonald took over at VA, the department's wait-time rhetoric doesn't match up with the reality of veterans' experiences."
Dan Caldwell, vice president for political and legislative action of Concerned Veterans for America, said in a statement that McDonald's comments show "he doesn't even view long wait times and secret wait lists as real problems in need of a fix," calling him out of touch and "not the serious reformer he promised to be."
While the conservative group demanded an apology, it did not go as far as calling for McDonald's resignation. The organization's press secretary, John Cooper, told The Daily Beast that McDonald should not be retained in the next administration.
"Frankly, at this point, it wouldn't make a difference if Secretary McDonald resigns because his deputy, Sloan Gibson, is just as invested in defending a broken VA system, and President Obama has shown he is not serious about fixing the issues at the VA," Cooper said.
VoteVets, a progressive veterans group, issued a more measured response to The Daily Beast. Its chairman, Jon Soltz, praised McDonald and Shinseki for eliminating the agency's backlog of claims and working to decrease wait times.
"Secretary McDonald's comments were clumsy, at best," said Soltz, an Iraq War veteran. "...We're on the right path, and it's crucial that Congress continue to give the VA what it needs to expand services, and cut wait times, not move towards privatization."
The Daily Beast's calls and emails to various Democratic House and Senate offices — in particular those members who sit on veterans' affairs committees — went mostly unreturned. However, Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) rationalized McDonald's comments, telling The Daily Beast that while his comparison to Disneyland was "unfortunate," the VA can often seem like "a bad theme park: long lines, bad service, and indifferent employees."
Rep. Jerry McNerney, another Democratic member of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, told The Daily Beast that McDonald "should be more aware of the impact his comments may have on veterans and their families."
The Department of Veterans Affairs provided a statement to The Daily Beast on Monday afternoon which neither mentioned nor apologized for McDonald's comments.
"In our effort to determine how we can better meet veterans' needs, knowing that their satisfaction is our most important measure, we have heard them tell us that wait times alone are not the only indication of their experience with the VA and that's why we must transform the way we do business," the statement reads.
— Andrew Desiderio