Lawmakers Excoriate Obama’s VA Secretary for ‘Disney’ Comments

House Speaker Paul Ryan
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wisc.) / AP

The leading official at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs is under fire for comparing the amount of time that veterans wait for medical care at agency hospitals to ride wait times at Disney theme parks.

Republican lawmakers, including House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), piled on VA Secretary Robert McDonald after he implied to journalists that the agency shouldn’t use the amount of time that veterans await care as a metric for success because Disney doesn’t measure wait times for rides.

"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 told reporters Monday morning, the Washington Examiner first reported. "And what I would like to move to, eventually, is that kind of measure."

"This is not make-believe, Mr. Secretary. Veterans have died waiting in those lines." Ryan wrote on Twitter. "There’s no Fast Pass at the #VA. #Veterans seeking medical attention don’t have that luxury."

McDonald’s comments came more than two years after revelations about VA hospital staffers using fake waiting lists to conceal the long times that veterans waited for care. Dozens of veterans are said to have died waiting for appointments at VA facilities.

The wait list controversy precipitated the ouster of McDonald’s predecessor, Eric Shinseki, in 2014. President Obama then nominated McDonald to the post and signed legislation aimed to overhaul veterans’ care, though assessments have continued to point to flawed care and persisting waits at VA hospitals. Republicans have pushed for further reform at the VA but have met resistance from Obama, McDonald, and Democrats.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.), who chairs the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said that McDonald’s comments will "further erode" veterans’ trust in VA bureaucrats.

"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. Wait times are of critical importance to the veterans waiting for VA medical care and they should be to [Secretary] Bob McDonald as well," 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. But given the fact that VA has successfully fired only a handful of employees for wait-time manipulation while letting the bulk of those behind its nationwide delays-in-care scandal off with no discipline or weak slaps on the wrist, I am not at all surprised these problems persist," Miller continued.

In addition to a flurry of VA inspector general reports exposing problems at specific VA facilities across the country, a Government Accountability Office report published last month concluded that scheduling errors by VA employees continue to mislead on patients’ wait times for care. The agency does not exercise sufficient oversight to ensure that veterans get timely care, GAO concluded.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.), a Navy Reserve veteran, said that McDonald should be embarrassed for minimizing the issue of wait times at the VA and demanded the secretary apologize for the comments.

"The frustration, fear and helplessness our veterans feel waiting for months to get the health care they need is nothing compared to a day at Disneyland and the Secretary should be embarrassed for making such a comparison," Kirk stated.

"Their ‘satisfaction with the experience’ is substandard time and time again, like at Hines VA where food trays are served with cockroaches and rooms are covered in dangerous mold. The Secretary should apologize for his tone deaf comments and show more respect for the men and women he is supposed to be serving."

Rep. Mike Coffman (R., Colo.), a Marine veteran, called the comments "tone deaf" and accused McDonald of trying to sidestep responsibility for his failed leadership atop the agency.

"Clearly there is a difference between waiting for a roller coaster ride and waiting for life-saving treatment. Our veterans who have served this nation have earned the right to receive quality care in a timely manner. And, by the way, Disney does measure wait times. You can download their app and see for yourself," Coffman said in a statement.

"Unfortunately, the problems at the VA extend well beyond the wait times. Bureaucratic incompetence and a complete lack of accountability have led to an exorbitant waste of taxpayer dollars, neglect of our veterans needs, and too many promises of improvements that never seem to happen," the Colorado lawmaker continued.

"Nothing will change at the VA without change from the top and clearly, a Secretary who does not understand the difference between an amusement park and healthcare is not the one to lead that change."