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Lawmakers Expect VA Secretary to Apologize for Disney Wait Time Gaffe

VA Secretary Bob McDonald in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy VA blog)
VA Secretary Bob McDonald in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy VA blog)

The senior members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Tuesday said they expect Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald to publicly apologize for drawing a parallel between wait times at VA hospitals and lines at Disney theme parks.

"It's one thing to wait for a roller coaster, but it's another thing to wait for a blood transfusion. The two should not be comparable in one statement or another," Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican from Georgia and chairman of the panel, said as he opened the hearing. "The Secretary owes the veterans of the United States of America and this committee an apology."

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut and the ranking member of the panel, agreed, saying McDonald's personal expression of regret nor one passed along to the committee by VA Deputy Sloan Gibson in opening remarks is enough.

Gibson told the panel that he and McDonald both "deeply regret the distraction [McDonald's comments] may have caused‎ and the perception that it created that access to care is anything other than our absolute top priority."

"We're expecting perhaps more from him in a way of an apology," Blumenthal said. ""There is a strong feeling here that we all make mistakes, and the best way to handle them is to make an apology and move on. Actions speak louder than words and his actions can speak louder than those words" from Monday.

Gibson conceded the lawmakers' point, saying that his delivering an apology "doesn't take the place of him [McDonald] saying it."

McDonald continued to draw heat Tuesday for saying VA health care aspires to be like a Disney theme park in how it measures success -- by overall customer satisfaction, not "the number of hours you wait in line."

McDonald's comments during a breakfast meeting with reporters on Monday instantly drew a barrage of criticism, though the secretary hasn't yet apologized for the remarks.

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican from Florida, called the comparison "just plain wrong" and The American Legion noted "that people don't die while waiting to go on Space Mountain."

One veterans group, Concerned Veterans for America, said it's not calling for his ouster because Gibson is "as bad as" the secretary, while even Disney Corp. weighed in to say it takes wait times very seriously.

"One of the things we take great pride in is if you have a wait time at our parks, your wait is enjoyable," a spokesman for Disney Theme Parks told the online news site Independent Review Journal. "If you wait at the Haunted Mansion there are musical tombstones that will sing to you.

"There is a flowing honey wall at the Winnie the Pooh ride. We designed animated crabs for The Little Mermaid waiting area which will interact with you and play games while you wait," the spokesman said. "We take every facet of the guest experience very seriously. If you have to wait, you should have fun while doing it."

Dan Caldwell, vice president for political and legislative action at the Concerned Veterans for America, on Tuesday said, "Were it not for the fact that we have no faith in the Obama administration to appoint a competent, reform-minded secretary, and the fact that McDonald's deputy, Sloan Gibson, is just as bad as him, CVA would likely be calling for Secretary McDonald's resignation today."

CVA's criticism of McDonald is hardly surprising. The secretary has regularly called out CVA as a Koch brothers'-backed group whose aim is to privatize VA health care. CVA officials deny they want to see the VA fair be privatized, but do want improved accountability.

"Secretary McDonald has every right to disagree with us," Caldwell said, "but what he does not have a right to do is engage in petty and false attacks against our organization."

McDonald's reference to Disney is also not unusual. He has been touting the corporate giant as a leader in customer service for at least two years. In the past, however, he has not specifically made an analogy between wait times at VA hospitals and those at the Disney theme parks.

"We want the veterans' experience with the VA to be as good as the best private sector experiences -- like if you took your family to Disney," he said in February 2015 during an interview on Meet the Press.

During other presentations he has talked up the book, "If Disney Ran Your Hospital: 9 1/2 Things You Would Do Differently, written by Fred Lee, a former hospital executive and management expert who also worked for Disney. Lee is also on the VA advisory board.

Joe Davis, national spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars, said McDonald is right about the importance of the veteran's overall experience in dealing with the VA.

"[He] is correct in part, in that the time spent waiting in line is directly proportional to the quality of someone's experience once they get in the door," Davis said. "Veterans are conditioned to waiting in lines their entire military careers.

"What veterans don't like is not getting what they earned or were promised. Directly proportional," he said.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at Bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at@BryantJordan.

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