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Secretary of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald, at a House hearing in February, 2016.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald, at a House hearing in February, 2016. (Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers lashed out Monday at Bob McDonald after the Department of Veterans Affairs secretary compared the time veterans wait for health care to the wait for rides at Disneyland.

The critics, including the House speaker and chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, charged McDonald with making light of delays in VA care that caused veteran deaths and downplaying serious problems that remain within the department.

During a breakfast gathering, McDonald told a group of reporters that he looks to the Disney company as a model for the embattled VA, which is a comparison that he has used in the past and one that plays to his own experience as the former CEO of Procter & Gamble, one of the world’s largest and most successful companies.

“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 said during a media breakfast, according to multiple reports. “And what I would like to move to, eventually, is that kind of measure.”

Long and potentially dangerous wait times at VA hospitals were at the center of a national scandal in 2014. Investigations found veterans were waiting months to be seen and that the department was systematically covering up the waits at facilities across the country.

“This is not make-believe, Mr. Secretary. Veterans have died waiting in those lines,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., tweeted out following McDonald’s comment.

A statement released by the VA late Monday afternoon said, "We know that Veterans are still waiting too long for care. 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." (Read the full statement.)

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said McDonald was brought in as secretary in 2014 precisely to solve the wait-time debacle.

“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 wrote in a statement posted to the committee website. “Wait times are of critical importance to the veterans waiting for VA medical care and they should be to Sec. Bob McDonald as well.”

Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., also blasted the comment – as well as McDonald’s role in leading the department, which has been focused on fixing a vast bureaucracy that many people see as badly broken.

“Veterans’ health care is not entertainment. The VA deserves better leadership,” Lamborn tweeted.

When asked why the VA should measure wait times if Disney does not, Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., tweeted: “Because veterans aren't waiting for health care at Space Mountain.”

The American Legion, which represents 2.2 million veterans, said the Disney comment was an unfortunate comparison and that reasonable wait times are key to successful health care – not just veteran satisfaction rates.

“People don’t die while waiting to go on Space Mountain,” National Commander Dale Barnett said in a released statement.

The Department of Veterans Affairs' statementThe Department of Veterans Affairs is working to better serve the Veterans we have the privilege of serving. This is a solemn duty that we take seriously.

We know that Veterans are still waiting too long for care. 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.

We have learned that figures measuring the wrong metric can cause unintended consequences and confusion like the 14 day measure back in 2014 that was central to employees managing to a metric rather than to the real need of our patients.

We are working hard to increase access to care and have hired more doctors and nurses, increased clinic space, extended clinic hours and are working more closely with community providers referring Veterans out to private providers for care. We are focusing on patients with the most urgent health care needs first.

In working to improve customer service, VA has been working with private sector companies known for providing positive experiences to their customers to understand how we can provide better service to the Veterans we serve. Hearing from our Veterans that we are effectively serving them is the best gauge of how we will measure our success.

tritten.travis@stripes.com Twitter: @Travis_Tritten


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