VA secretary refuses to apologize for Disney comments

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Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald on Tuesday refused to apologize for comparing wait times at VA clinics to lines at Disneyland, saying they’re not a comprehensive measure of hospital performance.

During an interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, McDonald was given three chances to apologize for his controversial comment, which has drawn fire from Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

{mosads}“If I was misunderstood, or if I said the wrong thing, I’m glad that I’ve had the opportunity to correct it,” McDonald said.

But the secretary repeatedly defended his efforts to improve conditions at VA hospitals around the country.

“Look, we get it. Wait times are important. There’s no question wait times are important,” he said. “But there’s more to the veteran experience than just wait times.”

Hours after McDonald’s interview, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) renewed his criticism of the secretary’s initial comments.

“Mr. Secretary: No one misunderstood. What you said was wrong. Period.” Ryan tweeted. 

Later on Tuesday, McDonald released a statement that said he had regrets if his MOnday comments led people to think he didn’t take the VA’s mission 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,” he said. 

Ryan earlier on Tuesday had stopped short of calling for McDonald’s resignation. 

“This is not make-believe. This is not Disneyland, or Wonderland, for that matter,” Ryan told reporters Tuesday at a press conference. 

“Veterans have died waiting in line for their care,” he added. “Clearly, the secretary’s comments were not worthy of the veterans that he serves, but they are also indicative of a culture of indifference at the VA.”

The comments are the latest headache for an agency still trying to recover from a 2014 scandal over clinics covering up long delays for veterans seeking healthcare.

“When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line?” McDonald asked during a breakfast Monday with reporters. “What’s important is what’s your satisfaction with the experience.”

At least one member of the Senate, Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), has called for the VA secretary to resign. 

The outrage has come from both sides of the aisle. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), an Iraq War combat veteran running for Senate, on Tuesday called McDonald’s comparison “unbelievably tone-deaf and hurtful to American heroes desperately in need of care.”

McDonald acknowledged that veterans are still waiting too long to receive care. But he also touted the agency’s efforts to reduce waits so far, such as hiring thousands more doctors and nurses and opening more medical treatment facilities. 

The secretary said his agency is in the midst of “the largest transformation” in its history, stressing  that his service in the Army gives him a personal stake.

“I’m a veteran, I have put my life in danger for this country,” he said. “Nothing drives me crazy more than our inability to provide timely care for them.”

He said wait times for mental health, primary and specialty care are all under one week. The VA’s electronic wait list has been reduced by 36 percent over the past two years, according to the agency. 

“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 do that,” McDonald said.

“Things are improving, but they are not where they need to be.”

McDonald, a former Procter & Gamble CEO, was tapped to replace Eric Shinseki as VA secretary in 2014 after reports that veterans were dying while waiting for care at VA hospitals. 

Updated at 4:46 p.m.

Tags Eric Shinseki Paul Ryan Roy Blunt

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