VA Secretary Disneyland-wait time comparison draws ire

Story highlights

  • Veteran Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald addressed a Christian Science Monitor Breakfast on Monday
  • He drew criticism for comparing wait times for VA services to Disneyland

(CNN)Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald downplayed Monday the time it takes for veterans to receive medical treatment by comparing the "experience" of waiting for health care to Disneyland guests waiting for a ride.

"When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? Or what's important?" McDonald told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast in Washington. "What's important is what's your satisfaction with the experience?"
    American Legion National Commander Dale Barnett excoriated McDonald: "The American Legion agrees that the VA secretary's analogy between Disneyland and VA wait times was an unfortunate comparison because people don't die while waiting to go on Space Mountain."
    "We also disagree with the substance of his comment because wait times are very important to not just the satisfaction quotient, but in some cases the veterans health," he said in a statement.
    Prominent Republicans criticized the secretary in the hours following his remarks, including presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, who painted McDonald as an example of Obama's administration.
    "Obama's VA Secretary just said we shouldn't measure wait times. Hillary says VA problems are not 'widespread.' I will take care of our vets!" Trump tweeted, a reference to comments Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton made in 2015.
    House Speaker Paul Ryan also used Twitter to criticize McDonald.
    "This is not make-believe, Mr. Secretary. Veterans have died waiting in those lines," Ryan tweeted.
    McDonald told reporters the VA is trying to move to a satisfaction based measurement that can track the quality of VA health care rather than just how long vets are waiting for various medical appointments and procedures.
    "The days to an appointment is really not what we should be measuring," McDonald said. "What we should be measuring is the veteran's satisfaction. I mean, what really counts is how does the veteran feel about their encounter with the VA."
    The VA continues to be scrutinized for not addressing long waits veterans are experiencing for medical treatment. In March, the Government Accounting Office released a report citing delays in treatment for newly enrolled veterans. The report sampled 180 newly enrolled veterans and found "nearly half were unable to access primary care because VA medical staff did not schedule appointments for these veterans in accordance with (Veterans Health Administration) policy."
    The GAO says its oversight of veteran's access is hindered, in part, by data weaknesses and the lack of a comprehensive scheduling policy.
    The VA issued a statement later Monday saying it has "a solemn duty that we take seriously."
    "We know that veterans are still waiting too long for care," the agency said. "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 VA and that's why we must transform the way we do business."
    Rep. Jeff Miller, House Committee on Veterans' Affairs chairman, said there was "nothing amusing" about McDonald's comparison.
    "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," Miller said in a statement.
    Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley also criticized the remarks for setting "the tone for the entire agency."
    "If customers aren't satisfied with Disneyland, they can go elsewhere," Grassley said in a statement. "Veterans have to rely on the VA, except those eligible for the Choice program."
    CNN has reported extensively on the lack of accountability and trust for the VA's wait times system, along with confusion surrounding the wait time calculations the Veterans Administration has used to determine how long veterans are waiting for care.
    McDonald addressed some of those concerns Monday morning saying a previous goal set by the VA of seeing patients within 14 days led to confusion within the VA itself.
    This morning he added, "the 14-day measure was irrelevant and got us in trouble."