Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald, under pressure to be more transparent about how VA measures wait times for veteran care, on Monday said the government should be more like Disneyland.
Disney doesn’t track how long visitors wait in line for attractions at its theme parks to decide if they liked their experience, he said. So the VA should not be held to the same standard for medical appointments for veterans.
“When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? Or what’s important?” McDonald told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.
“What’s important is, what’s your satisfaction with the experience?”
The comparison brought swift, political-season condemnation from Republicans and veteran service organizations, who said McDonald was being insensitive to veterans.
Disney was one example he cited of how private sector companies look more closely at whether their customers are satisfied overall than at the time they have to wait on line for service.
“What I’d like to move to eventually, is that kind of measure,” McDonald said.
His comments were quickly denounced by Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee for president, and top Republicans on Capitol Hill, including House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as insensitive to veterans, whose long waits at VA hospitals — and the agency’s attempt to cover them up — exploded into a scandal two years ago.
Whistleblowers and the agency’s watchdog revealed that VA employees in Phoenix and at other hospitals across the country were putting appointment dates in the system earlier than the real ones, which were later on the calendar and exceeded the reasonable time a veteran should wait to see a doctor. The scandal cost former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki his job.
Disney, it turns out, does collect and analyze extensive waiting time data, which it considers core to its overall customer experience. The company has a system that manages the information.
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Va.) chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the agency’s “wait-time rhetoric doesn’t match up with the reality of veterans’ experiences.”
“…attempts among department officials to downplay the significance of wait times for VA medical care will only further erode the trust of the veterans the department is charged with serving,” Miller said in a statement.
In the scandal’s aftermath, VA says that wait times for care have shortened in many places, thanks to more resources and a focus on outsourcing care to private doctors. But a recent report by the Government Accountability Office criticized the metric the agency uses to calculate how long a veteran waits for an appointment or procedure. That measure is called the “preferred date,” but does not count the wait from the time a patient first calls or sends an email to schedule an appointment.
But McDonald said the wait from the day the appointment is created, which varies widely among VA hospitals, “is not what we should be measuring.”
“We don’t think it’s valid,” he said Monday. “We have a very large health-care system. I don’t want to create more measures that are irrelevant.”
He said the date the appointment is made “is not the ultimate measure of satisfication.”
“You would have a veteran who waits two days and one who waits eight days” for a medical appointment, McDonald said, but the one who waited longer might feel better about the care he or she received.
The agency responded to the uproar in a statement late Monday.
“We know that Veterans are still waiting too long for care,” it said. “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…”
The agency did not address Disney directly, but said 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.”