Two years ago the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs resigned in disgrace after it was revealed that veterans were being subjected to exceedingly long waiting periods to obtain health care and benefits and department officials were manipulating records to hide this fact.

Two years later the problem remains but the current secretary is callously dismissive of the problem.

“When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? Or what’s important? What’s important is, what’s your satisfaction with the experience?” Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald said during a newspaper interview this past week. “And what I would like to move to, eventually, is that kind of measure.”

Waiting to board an amusement park ride is a bit different from waiting for pain-relieving or even life-saving medical care. You can’t ask the deceased what their level of satisfaction was — that skews the survey a bit.

Nevada’s junior Sen. Dean Heller was among the first to lambaste McDonald for his obtuse remark. Heller wrote in a letter to the secretary, “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 is critical to ensure that Veterans across my state are receiving the care they were promised in an expedient manner.”

Heller noted that statistics for Nevada alone show nearly 10,000 VA appointments are still being scheduled more than 30 days beyond the requested appointment date.

“Time and time again, I have called for accountability at your agency, and I strongly believe that it should start with the top,” Heller fumed.

A year ago The Associated Press reported the number of veterans waiting more than 90 days for non-emergency care has nearly doubled. This was nearly a year after Congress doled out $16 billion to solve the problem of lengthy waiting lists.

In March of this year the Government Accountability Office reported that it studied 180 veterans newly enrolled in the VA health system. Sixty of that 180 had not yet seen a health provider and “nearly half were unable to access primary care because VA medical center staff did not schedule appointments …”

As for McDonald’s Disney comparison, Disney spent more than $1 billion on something called the Disney MagicBand to reduce long lines. The only magic McDonald produces with $16 billion is sleight of hand.

Nevada’s gaffe-prone senior Sen. Harry Reid defended McDonald. “I support Secretary McDonald all the way. …” Reid said. “I’m an expert on poor choice of words. … I’m sure he would be the first to tell you, following my example, saying the wrong things is not the best way to go.”

Republican Congressman Joe Heck, who is running for Reid’s Senate seat, used the McDonald crass remark to call for passage of the VA Accountability Act, which is stalled in the Senate.

“Secretary McDonald’s double down on his callous remarks invoking Disneyland is alarming because it suggests the defensive culture among management at the VA, which lead to the falsification of wait-time reports in the first place, persists under his leadership,” said Heck, a brigadier general in the Army Reserve medical corps and a veteran of the Iraq conflict. “The remedy to the VA’s culture of excuses is a needed dose of accountability.”

Former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, who is running for Reid’s seat from the Democratic side, for once parted company with shrugging Reid. “Even for Washington, the tone deafness of these comments is stunning,” she said. “The VA needs to address the wait times at its facilities so our veterans get the care they need in a timely manner, not offer up false analogies and excuses. It’s long past time for the VA to get its act together.”

Congressman Cresent Hardy also called McDonald to task. “Veterans are not waiting in line for a temporary thrill ride; in many cases, they are waiting for critically important and life-saving procedures,” he said. “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.”

Congressman Mark Amodei tersely stated, “This administration’s record of utter failure with respect to senior management at the VA remains undisputed.”

Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at thomasmnv@yahoo.com. He also blogs at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.

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