VA officials respond to outcry over secretary’s ‘Disneyland’ comments

Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said Secretary Robert McDonald’s recent comments comparing wait times at the VA and wait times at Disneyland were misunderstood and missed the larger point the health care at the VA is improving. (Photo by Wafa Shahid/Cronkite News)

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, claimed that some veterans had died while waiting for treatment at a Veterans Affairs facility and “I don’t see how you compare that to Disneyland,” referring to a comment by VA Secretary Robert McDonald earlier this week. (Photo by Wafa Shahid/Cronkite News)

Department of Veterans Affairs administrators got a rough reception at a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing, where officials were asked about Secretary Robert McDonald’s statement comparing VA and Disneyland wait times. McDonald was not at the hearing. (Photo by Wafa Shahid/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Department of Veterans’ Affairs officials apologized this week for comments by Secretary Robert McDonald that compared VA health care wait times with wait times at Disneyland – but they didn’t back down from the statement.

VA administrators conceded that it was a poor choice of words but told a Senate panel Tuesday that McDonald was making a “point about delivering great customer service,” of which wait times are only a part.

“The point Bob was trying to make was really the point about delivering great customer service, a great veteran experience around healthcare,” Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

“It’s unfortunate and he and I both regret that folks misunderstood or misconstrued the point that was being made there,” Gibson said.

Gibson’s testimony – McDonald was not at the hearing – did little to soothe lawmakers at the hearing, including Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who said wait times for care can be a matter of life and death for veterans.

“In at least one case that triggered this whole scandal, 50 veterans waited and died while waiting,” McCain said. “I don’t see how you compare that to Disneyland.”

The Disneyland comment came Monday when McDonald was the featured speaker at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with reporters.

“When you go to Disneyland, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? Or what’s important?” McDonald said, in response to a question about wait times and the quality of care at the VA.

The comment immediately drew fire from elected officials, who called it “ludicrous” and “just plain wrong,” and with some lawmakers calling for McDonald’s resignation.

-Cronkite News video by Wafa Shahid

McDonald quickly backtracked, saying in a statement Tuesday that he if anyone thought his comments mean that he doesn’t take seriously the “noble mission” of helping veterans, “I deeply regret that. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

At least one veterans group in Arizona was willing to give McDonald the benefit of the doubt this week.

Tim McCoy, commander at the Disabled American Veterans’ Phoenix chapter, said Wednesday that he thinks McDonald was misunderstood. He said McCain “took a hard line on the secretary’s comments,” but McCoy thinks the comments were taken out of context.

“None of us think that Secretary McDonald has disregarded veteran care. He’s done a pretty good job so far,” McCoy said.

“The Phoenix VA is doing much better. Veterans are starting to find the care is improving. But, it’s a long process and it’s going to take some time,” McCoy said.

Phoenix is one of three major VA health care facilities in the state, along with Prescott and Tucson, as well as a number of outpatient clinics scattered throughout the state.

It was the revelation that VA workers at the Phoenix facility had falsified records of wait times two years ago that sparked an inquiry into operations at VA facilities nationwide. Those investigations uncovered systemic problems and led to the resignation of then-Secretary Eric Shinseki.

McCain said McDonald’s Disneyland comments were particularly troubling considering the fact that wait time problems were the source of many of the agency’s problems

“These wait times mean that … it’s literally risking their lives, and they need to go out and get the care that they have earned,” he said of veterans who turn to the VA for care.

But Gibson, who said he considers McDonald a friend, was adamant Tuesday that the VA takes veteran health seriously and is making advances, despite how the secretary’s comments may have sounded.

“Everything that he’s done since he’s arrived here has been placing the veteran at the very center of what we do,” Gibson said.