After a barrage of criticism for his remarks comparing wait times for veterans who are VA patients to lines at a Disney amusement park, the secretary of veterans affairs is trying to explain.
The remarks led at least two Republican senators to call for Secretary Robert McDonald’s resignation Tuesday.
McDonald was criticized for his statement to reporters about the relative importance of measuring wait times or the overall experience at VA facilities, which he said veterans rate highly.
“When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? Or what’s important?” McDonald said at a breakfast Monday sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “What’s important is, what’s your satisfaction with the experience?”
Then, in a statement late Tuesday, McDonald said “it was never my intention to suggest that I don’t take our mission of serving Veterans very seriously. … 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.”
But McDonald’s earlier comment led Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) to say that “Secretary McDonald’s preposterous statement is right out of Never Never Land. 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.”
Blunt’s move may signal that those Republicans facing difficult reelections in the fall — the Missouri senator is one of seven GOP senators considered to be in tight races — will use this issue as a move to go on offense against the Obama administration.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) joined Blunt’s call, saying “McDonald’s dishonorable remarks yesterday make clear that he fails to take seriously the need for timely and quality care for our veterans.”
McDonald got support from Sen. Harry Reid (Nev.), the Democratic leader. “He is a good man, he’s doing his best under very, very difficult circumstances, so I support Secretary McDonald all the way,” Reid said. “I am sure he would be the first to tell you that, following my example, saying wrong things is not the best way to go, but I support him, I think he’s doing well.”
As part of his damage control, McDonald explained his comments on MSNBC: “Look, we get it, wait times are important. There’s no question wait times are important. But there’s more to the veteran experience than just wait times …
“So we’re working really hard to get all veterans in for care. Our average wait times are three days for mental health, five days for primary care, and six days for specialty care. Now we know that those are averages and that there are people on either end of the bell curve that we need to do a better job serving, and we’re working hard to improve to do that. The work’s not done yet.”
While his breakfast meeting remarks generated immediate criticism from Republicans, not all of them called for him to resign.
One of the nation’s best known veterans, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), stopped short of that, but he was sharply critical. McDonald’s comments were “a stupid thing to say” and “totally unacceptable,” McCain said.
On the other side of the Capitol, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) did not urge McDonald’s ouster during his weekly news conference with the House leadership team. Ryan did say McDonald’s comments were “beyond the pale” and said he’d withhold final judgment pending greater clarification by the VA’s leader.
Other members of Ryan’s leadership team were equally condemning in their rebukes, but also declined to call for an outright resignation.