A veterans group advocating for reform at the Department of Veterans Affairs recommended that the next president not retain VA Secretary Robert McDonald, citing a history of "verbal gaffes" and failings.
Concerned Veterans for America stopped short of calling for McDonald’s immediate resignation following his comments likening veterans’ waits for care to lines at Disney theme parks. The group’s leaders said they did not trust the Obama administration to select a competent replacement in the president’s final year in office.
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"Whoever the next president is should not retain Secretary McDonald," Dan Caldwell, a Marine Corps veteran and the group’s vice president for political and legislative action, told reporters Tuesday morning. Caldwell pointed to data showing persistent wait times and issues at the VA’s network of hospitals as evidence that the agency had become "objectively worse" under McDonald’s watch.
The task of replacing McDonald would presumably fall to Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, or Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee.
President Obama tapped McDonald to lead the VA after his predecessor, Eric Shinseki, was forced to resign when hospital staffers were found keeping secret wait lists to hide long wait times. McDonald has been criticized by Republican lawmakers and outside groups for not doing enough to boost accountability and remedy problems with the agency’s health care system.
The secretary’s litany of "verbal gaffes and tone deaf remarks" have not helped his case, Caldwell said Tuesday.
Most recently, McDonald has been under fire by Republicans and some Democrats for suggesting that the VA should not use veterans’ wait times as a metric for success because Disney does not measure the lines for its theme park rides.
"When you got 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 during a Christian Science Monitor event Monday morning. "And what I would like to move to, eventually, is that kind of measure."
McDonald’s comments prompted swift rebuke from leading Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wisc.) and Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.), the VA committee chair.
At least two calls went out for McDonald’s resignation.
"Secretary McDonald’s preposterous statement is right out of Never Never Land," Sen. Roy Blunt (R., Mo.) said in a statement Tuesday. "I call on him to resign because it’s clear he cannot prioritize getting our veterans the health care they deserve and have earned in a timely manner. Dismissing wait times when veterans can often wait months for an appointment is negligent and a clear sign that new leadership is needed at the VA."
Sen. Joni Ernst (R., Iowa), the first female combat veteran to serve in the U.S. Senate, followed suit, accusing McDonald of enabling "deep corruption within the VA system."
McDonald has sought to minimize the fallout surrounding his remarks, admitting that wait times are "important" but not the only measure of veterans’ experience during an MSNBC appearance on Tuesday. He has declined to apologize for the remarks, however.
Caldwell said that McDonald’s comments point to a larger flaw in his leadership: namely, that the VA secretary sees long wait times at the VA as an "optics issues" rather than an "operational issue" threatening the lives of veterans. Dozens of veterans are believed to have died waiting for care at the Phoenix VA hospital system, the focal point of the fake wait list controversy two years ago.
Reports compiled by government watchdogs and independent groups since 2014 have spotlighted long wait times, insufficient care, and employee failings at VA facilities despite legislation aimed at fixing the problems.
Auditors with the Government Accountability Office, for instance, recently concluded that staffers at multiple VA medical facilities did not accurately log patient wait times, which resulted in erroneously short wait times. The VA lacks sufficient oversight to make sure that veterans receive timely care, the report published in April stated.
Caldwell said that he believes the VA has a problem with its internal culture. "There is a really toxic culture there" that does not encourage collaboration or transparency, he said.
A lengthy independent assessment commissioned by the VA determined last fall that the agency’s network of hospitals faces "crises in leadership and culture" and needs system-wide reworking.
When asked who could best lead the VA, Caldwell recommended that the next commander-in-chief look to someone with military experience who is not afraid to stand up to "entrenched bureaucrats in Washington."
The VA did not respond to a request for comment on Concerned Veterans for America’s recommendation that McDonald not be retained by the next administration.