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CONTACT 13: VA compares wait times to park lines

Posted at 4:07 PM, May 24, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-24 21:34:43-04

A Contact 13 Investigation revealed extreme wait times and delayed care for hundreds of veterans in Southern Nevada.

Now the Department of Veterans Affairs top official is facing a firestorm because he compared those wait times to waiting in line for a theme park. 
Secretary Robert McDonald was assigned to overhaul the VA following a nationwide scandal where veterans died while waiting for care, high-level managers got big bonuses and numbers were manipulated to cover up problems. 
On Monday, McDonald said, “The days to an appointment is really not what we should be measuring, we should be measuring the veterans’ satisfaction. When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? What’s important? What’s important is: what’s your satisfaction with the experience?”
McDonald's Disney comparison is upsetting a lot of people.
We reached out to Nevada's lawmakers. In an open letter to McDonald, Sen. Dean Heller called the comment flippant, disrespectful and harmful.    
Here is the full text of the letter:
Dear Secretary McDonald,
I write to you extremely concerned about the comments you made on May 23, 2016, comparing the length of time veterans wait to receive health care at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to the length of time people wait for rides at Disneyland.  Not only am I concerned about the flippant nature of your comparison but also the fact that you said that your agency should not use wait times as a measure of success because Disney does not either.  As a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I believe it is my responsibility to follow up with you on the gravity of this issue as it critical to ensure that Veterans across my state are receiving the care they were promised in an expedient manner.
When men and women across our nation committed to serving America and risking their lives to protect us, our country promised that, in return, we would care for these service members upon their return home.  This is not a Disney fairytale Mr. Secretary, this is reality.  Recent statistics from Nevada show nearly 10,000 VA appointments remain scheduled over 30 days from the requested date.  Given the issues that Nevada’s Veterans continue to face accessing VA health care, I do not believe that promise has been kept.  Just a few weeks ago, I heard from a Nevada veteran’s wife about the difficulty she faced scheduling a cardiology appointment for her husband.  When there are life-threatening issues that can make or break a veterans’ health, waiting is not an option, and Nevada’s veterans deserve better.
Time and time again, I have called for accountability at your agency, and I strongly believe that it should start with the top.  This is why your comments were not only disrespectful but harmful to ensuring that there will be any real change at the VA when it comes to the timeliness of health care appointment wait times.  When you came before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee for your confirmation, you promised accountability. Yet two years later, your agency has not only failed to meet the expectations of veterans, Congress, and the American public, but you have now walked back your commitments to those who served. Comparing the health and well-being of veterans to an amusement ‎park is not amusing and is absolutely unacceptable. In issuing your comments, I believe you exhibited a severe lack in judgement drawing into question your ability to provide accountability within your agency, as well as your ability to fulfill the VA’s commitment to Nevada’s veterans.  That is why I respectfully request answers to the following questions:
Does the VA remain committed to providing appointments to veterans within 30 days of the request?
What are the current VA appointment wait times for veterans in Nevada and nationwide?
For each fiscal year since implementation of the Choice Act, how many VA health care beneficiaries are obtaining appointments through the Choice Program as a result of an appointment wait time of 30 days or more?
  • How do you explain to veterans that you believe their wait time for care is just as important as a wait time at an amusement park?
  • When did your view on appointment wait times change to the point that you believe wait time should not even be a measure for the VA?
  • Do you believe that the VA cannot achieve both timely and quality care simultaneously?
  • Do you believe you are still fit to serve and advocate on behalf of veterans as the VA Secretary if you aren't prioritizing the timeliness of their health care-the very reason you became Secretary in the midst of the 2014 VA health care scandal?
Thank you for attention to this serious matter, and I respectfully request a response to this letter by May 30, 2016.
Rep. Dina Titus provided this statement:
“It was an unfortunate comparison, but many veterans feel like navigating through the VA is like being at a bad theme park: long lines, bad service, and indifferent employees. We must fix that now. Our nation’s heroes deserve better.”
Rep. Cresent Hardy issued this response:
“Director McDonald is turning a blind eye to a crucial component of our veterans’ VA experience. Veterans aren’t waiting in line for a temporary thrill ride; in many cases, they are waiting for critically important and life-saving procedures. To suggest that wait time matters so little reveals a disturbing lack of understanding at the highest levels of those responsible for caring for our veterans - or, worse, a disturbing attempt to cover up their own failures.
We are fortunate enough that the Southern Nevada VA system provides an excellent quality of care. But even with terrific medical providers and local leadership, there are systemic problems that can still be addressed. Wait times are compounded by a shortage of in-house doctors and delayed payments to privately contracted doctors who are being asked to wait as long as a full year before they receive payment for treating their patients.
I will continue to hold the VA accountable for failures to do their duty and meet with leaders of Nevada's veteran community to address local issues as they arise. Veterans experiencing undesirable wait times should call my office for help.”
Sen. Harry Reid says it's just a bad choice of words:
"I’m an expert at the wrong choice of words and example. I’ve been pretty good at that over the years and he could’ve done a better job at talking about Disneyland, but he didn’t. He is a good man, he is doing his best under very, very difficult circumstances, so I support secretary McDonald all the way. I’m sure he would be the first to tell you that following my example of saying the wrong things is not the best way to go, but I support him."
McDonald issued a statement Tuesday afternoon following the criticism:
On Monday, I made some remarks on how we’re working to improve Veterans' satisfaction with the care they receive from VA. It was never my intention to suggest that I don't take our mission of serving Veterans very seriously. 
In fact, improving access to care is my number one priority and the priority I have set for the entire department.  For the last two years, the huge majority of VA employees have worked tirelessly to improve the timeliness of the care and benefits we provides to Veterans. 
As I've told Veterans Service Organizations, Members of Congress, and myriad other groups of Veterans stakeholders, our goal is to ensure VA becomes the Number 1 customer-service organization in government. 
To do that, we are following many of the best practices of private sector health care providers and exceptional customer-service organizations.
At VA we take our mission of caring for those who "shall have borne the battle" very seriously; we have the best and most noble mission in government. 
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. 
As we approach the Memorial Day holiday and pay tribute to the sacrifices of courageous men and women who placed the interests of others above their own, we at the VA remain focused on our mission to care for those who bravely served our Nation.