WASHINGTON -- Critics said Monday that Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald had trivialized the long-standing problem of lengthy wait times for appointments at California's veterans medical centers by comparing them to waiting in long lines at Disneyland.
His comments sparked an angry backlash from California lawmakers who felt that he had dismissed the angst and frustration of their constituents. McDonald made the comments Monday during a roundtable discussion with reporters hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.
"When you go to Disneyland, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line?" he said. "What's important? What's important is: What's your satisfaction with the experience?"
Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., said in a statement that McDonald's comparison to the lines at Disneyland Park "is utterly out of touch."
"The wait times sure as hell did matter to the veterans who died while waiting for services," he said. "The wait times sure as hell do matter to the veterans who call my office because they are struggling to get in to see a VA doctor. ... Why is that so hard for our VA secretary to understand?"
The Disneyland Park guest services website shows the park does measure current wait times for rides throughout the day and they are viewable by the public.
The VA has learned that measuring the wrong metric can bring unintended consequences and confusion, so the agency is careful not to base the quality of care on wait times alone, according to VA spokeswoman Victoria Dillon.
"We know that veterans are still waiting too long for care," she said. "In our effort to determine how we can better meet veterans' needs, knowing that their satisfaction is our most important measure ... we must transform the way we do business."
Long wait times for appointments at VA medical centers have been an enduring concern, particularly since the Iraq War produced so many casualties, which flooded the VA when the injured troops left the military. It became a public scandal in 2014, when CNN revealed that veterans had died while waiting for treatment.
An investigation showed that the agency had manipulated its records to cast lengthy wait times in a more favorable light. The scandal led to the resignation of the VA secretary at the time, Eric Shinseki, and to McDonald's appointment.
A 2015 Associated Press analysis revealed that most California veterans wait at least 31 days for appointments at the state's VA health care centers. Northern California Veterans Affairs Clinic in Sacramento Valley, San Luis Obispo Veterans Affairs Clinic and the Sepulveda Veterans Affairs Clinic had the highest percentages of delayed appointments, according to the analysis.
The AP based that analysis on data collected from 940 veterans medical centers in California from Sept. 1, 2014, to Feb. 28, 2015.
VA statistics show that 1.85 million veterans live in California, more than in any other state. The majority -- roughly 1.38 million -- are wartime veterans.
Additionally, California is home to the largest military population in the country -- 168,820 active-duty members and 61,986 military civilians, according to data compiled by Governing magazine. The second largest group of active-duty men and women live in Virginia, home to 129,699, and 114,654 members live in North Carolina.
Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., denounced McDonald's remarks on Twitter, calling them "disgraceful." Rep. Mimi Walters, R-Calif., tweeted that wait times matter because they measure access to care. Veterans have died waiting for that care, she said.
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump also seized on McDonald's remarks, tweeting, "I will take care of our vets!"
McDonald told reporters that the VA has been trying to find ways to measure the quality of a veteran's health care experience.
"We're in the process of creating that kind of measure, validating that kind of measure, and making sure it's meaningful and that it's valid to the outcome," he said. "And that's really the kind of measure I want to move to."
House Committee on Veterans' Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., issued a statement Monday that said McDonald's comparison between appointment wait times and amusement park wait times was "just plain wrong."