“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?” Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald said during a Christian Science Monitor breakfast on Monday. “And what I would like to move to, eventually, is that kind of measure.”
That is simply crass, crude, clueless and obtuse.
Waiting to board an amusement park ride is a bit different from waiting for pain-relieving or even life-saving medical care. You can’t ask the deceased what their level of satisfaction was.
Nevada’s junior Sen. Dean Heller unloaded in a letter to McDonald:
I write to you extremely concerned about the comments you made on May 23, 2016, comparing the length of time veterans wait to receive health care at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to the length of time people wait for rides at Disneyland. Not only am I concerned about the flippant nature of your comparison but also the fact that you said that your agency should not use wait times as a measure of success because Disney does not either. As a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I believe it is my responsibility to follow up with you on the gravity of this issue as it critical to ensure that Veterans across my state are receiving the care they were promised in an expedient manner.
When men and women across our nation committed to serving America and risking their lives to protect us, our country promised that, in return, we would care for these service members upon their return home. This is not a Disney fairytale Mr. Secretary, this is reality. Recent statistics from Nevada show nearly 10,000 VA appointments remain scheduled over 30 days from the requested date. Given the issues that Nevada’s Veterans continue to face accessing VA health care, I do not believe that promise has been kept. Just a few weeks ago, I heard from a Nevada veteran’s wife about the difficulty she faced scheduling a cardiology appointment for her husband. When there are life-threatening issues that can make or break a veterans’ health, waiting is not an option, and Nevada’s veterans deserve better.
Time and time again, I have called for accountability at your agency, and I strongly believe that it should start with the top. This is why your comments were not only disrespectful but harmful to ensuring that there will be any real change at the VA when it comes to the timeliness of health care appointment wait times.
A year ago The Associated Press reported that the number of veterans waiting more than 30 or 60 days for non-emergency care has largely stayed flat, while the number of medical appointments that take longer than 90 days to complete had nearly doubled.
This was nearly a year after Congress doled out $16 billion to solve the problem of lengthy waiting lists. VA officials had been manipulating the waiting lists to make them look like vets were waiting less time to see a doctor than was actually happening.
In March of this year the Government Accountability Office reported that it studied 180 veterans newly enrolled in the VA health system. Sixty of that 180 had not yet seen a health provider and “nearly half were unable to access primary care because VA medical center staff did not schedule appointments for these veterans in accordance with VHA policy. The 120 newly enrolled veterans in GAO’s review who were seen by providers waited from 22 days to 71 days from their requests that VA contact them to schedule appointments to when they were seen, according to GAO’s analysis.”
The analysis found that the system lacks a comprehensive scheduling policy and there were ongoing scheduling errors. A VA report in September found nearly 900,000 listed as “pending” for health care, but Social Security records listed 300,000 of those as deceased.
What did McDonald do with that $16 billion? Go to Disneyland?
Heller asked the VA secretary to answer these questions by May 30:
— Does the VA remain committed to providing appointments to veterans within 30 days of the request?
— What are the current VA appointment wait times for veterans in Nevada and nationwide?
— For each fiscal year since implementation of the Choice Act, how many VA health care beneficiaries are obtaining appointments through the Choice Program as a result of an appointment wait time of 30 days or more?
— How do you explain to veterans that you believe their wait time for care is just as important as a wait time at an amusement park?
— When did your view on appointment wait times change to the point that you believe wait time should not even be a measure for the VA?
— Do you believe that the VA cannot achieve both timely and quality care simultaneously.
— Do you believe you are still fit to serve and advocate on behalf of veterans as the VA Secretary if you aren’t prioritizing the timeliness of their health care — the very reason you became Secretary in the midst of the 2014 VA health care scandal?
It matters not whether McDonald still thinks he is fit to serve. Does Congress? Better yet, what do veterans think?
McDonald put out a press release today that basically blames others for misunderstanding his commitment to improving the VA and offered no apology for his cluelessness and highly inappropriate remark. “If my comments Monday led any Veterans to believe that I, or the dedicated workforce I am privileged to lead, don’t take that noble mission seriously, I deeply regret that. Nothing could be further from the truth,” the statement reads.
For the record, Disney has spent more than $1 billion on something called the Disney MagicBand so customers don’t have to wait in long lines.
Nevada’s senior Sen. Harry Reid defended McDonald today.
“I support Secretary McDonald all the way. …” Reid was quoted as saying. “I’m an expert on poor choice of words. … I’m sure he would be the first to tell you, following my example, saying the wrong things is not the best way to go.”
Masters of malaprops still together.
Republican Congressman Joe Heck, who is running for Reid’s Senate seat also weighed in. He used the callow McDonald gaffe to call for passage of the stalled VA Accountability Act, which he said is intended to address the agency’s defensive culture and pattern of offering excuses instead of solutions.
“Secretary McDonald’s double down on his callous remarks invoking Disneyland is alarming because it suggests the defensive culture among management at the VA, which lead to the falsification of wait-time reports in the first place, persists under his leadership,” said Heck, a brigadier general in the Army Reserve medical corps and a veteran of the Iraq conflict.
“The remedy to the VA’s culture of excuses is a needed dose of accountability. Unfortunately, the federal civil service, which makes it extremely difficult to remove negligent or unethical employees, remains an obstacle to such reform,” Heck added, noting that the VA Accountability Act passed the House but is stalled in Reid’s Senate. “Every day that the VA’s accountability problem goes unaddressed, taxpayers are being forced to foot the bill for the salaries of failed bureaucrats. Our veterans have given us all they have. Seeing that they get the care and benefits they need, earned and deserve is the very least we can do.”
Well, the VA is apparently doing the least it can do.
Surprisingly, former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, who is running for Reid’s seat from the Democratic side, parted company with shrugging Reid and blasted oafish McDonald.
“Even for Washington, the tone deafness of these comments is stunning,” she said in a statement. “The VA needs to address the wait times at its facilities so our veterans get the care they need in a timely manner, not offer up false analogies and excuses. It’s long past time for the VA to get its act together.”