Veterans

Disney comment leaves VA secretary facing criticism and puns over veterans' wait times

This article was originally published on May 23, 2016, at 10:55 p.m.

Monday wasn't the first time in recent months that Veterans Affairs officials have downplayed lingering problems with veterans' wait times to get medical care, and it wasn't the first time they've invoked Disney as a model company for the federal bureaucracy.

But the combination of the two by VA Secretary Bob McDonald this week touched off a firestorm of frustration and ridicule from department critics, many of whom appear to be sharpening their attacks for the fall elections.

During a Christian Science Monitor press event on Monday, McDonald responded ongoing attacks about how VA leaders measure patient wait times, saying the focus on specific numbers overshadows what should be the larger goal.

"What data do you get from Cleveland Clinic or Kaiser Permanente to compare with our data?" he asked. "To me, personally, the days to an appointment are really not what we should be measuring. What we should be measuring is a veterans' satisfaction.

"What really counts is how does the veteran feel about their encounter with the VA. When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? What's important is what your satisfaction is with the experience. What I would like to move to eventually is that kind of measure."

The comments echo one he made just one month earlier in a nationally-televised C-SPAN interview.

"How does Cleveland Clinic measure wait times? Does it matter?" he said during an episode of the network's Newsmakers show. "The important thing is to get the veteran in for care, and we're getting more and more veterans in for care."

But he did not invoke Disney in that response, and the theme-park connection appears to have made all the difference in critics attacks.

"To compare veterans' experiences waiting weeks and months for care to tourists waiting in line to see Mickey Mouse demonstrates just how out of touch the secretary is with the struggles many veterans deal with while waiting for care at the VA," said officials at Concerned Veterans for America, a frequent critic of the Democratic administration.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., took his attacks to Twitter, writing "The happiest place on earth? Secretary McDonald compares #VA lines to #Disneyland. Seriously."

But Space Mountain seemed to be the favorite attraction among the critics:

* House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said that "when you go to Disney, you aren't wondering if you're going to live long enough to make it to Space Mountain."

* Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., tweeted "Veterans aren't waiting for health care at Space Mountain."

* American Legion National Commander Dale Barnett said "people don't die while waiting to go on Space Mountain."

* Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., tweeted "Waiting for the #VA isn't the same as waiting in line for Space Mountain."

* The Republican National Committee issued a statement condemning the comments titled "Waiting for Space Mountain."

McDonald and other VA leaders have repeatedly mentioned Disney among other major private corporations as a model for the department, often in congressional testimony and typically without any pushback.

Earlier this month, at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event, McDonald touted VA efforts to focus operations on a "human centered design, how companies like Procter & Gamble and Disney design delightful experiences for their customers." Those comments were largely greeted with positive feedback of using private-sector lessons in federal programs.

But the wait times issue has been a persistent problem for the department for the last two years, since McDonald's predecessor, Eric Shinseki, was forced to resign over cases of doctored wait time lists and inaccurate reports of patient care access.

Both House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., condemned McDonald's comments Monday, even though both have suggested recently that the secretary should stay on into the next administration.

"There is nothing amusing about VA's performance over the past few years, and comparing VA wait times to those of an amusement park is just plain wrong," Miller said. "Wait times are of critical importance to the veterans waiting for VA medical care and they should be to Sec. Bob McDonald as well."

Even presumed GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump weighed in on the theme-park scandal, connecting McDonald to likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

"Obama's VA Secretary just said we shouldn't measure wait times. Hillary says VA problems are not 'widespread,'" he tweeted. "I will take care of our vets!"

VA officials released a statement late Monday saying that they are "working to better serve the Veterans we have the privilege of serving. This is a solemn duty that we take seriously."

They added: "We know that veterans are still waiting too long for care."

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.

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