Members of Congress are blasting Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald after the man charged with radically improving health care for America’s veterans said it was unfair to evaluate the VA based on the length of time a veteran registers and actually sees a doctor.
McDonald made the comments Monday morning at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with reporters.
“When you got 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?” said McDonald.
Multiple members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee are horrified by McDonald’s comments.
“I think his choice of analogies was just atrocious,” said Rep. Phil Roe, a four-term congressman who spent 31 years practicing medicine prior to running for Congress in 2008.
“The VA is an organization that is there to provide health care for our nation’s heroes and veterans. To compare waiting for a doctor’s appointment, where your life may be in balance to a ride at a theme park – at Disneyland, or Dollywood in my district – is ridiculous,” said Roe.
Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., also spent decades in medicine, including many years at a VA medical center in his district.
“Nobody died waiting in line at Disney. There’s pretty strong evidence that veterans have actually died waiting to be seen at the VA,” said Benishek. “This is health care we’re talking about, not entertainment.”
McDonald claims it is wrong to judge the VA by counting the days between the “create date” when a veteran first seeks an appointment to the time they actually see a doctor.
Benishek isn’t buying it, noting the VA knows exactly how important that waiting time is.
“The previous secretary (Ge. Eric Shinseki) lost his job over falsification of records. Why were they keeping track of this if it’s not important,” said Benishek. “I’m afraid that it speaks to his mindset, that he doesn’t take it as seriously as I do.”
McDonald argues that the a veteran’s “experience” with the VA should matter more than the statistics. Both lawmakers pointed out it’s hard to have an experience until you can get an appointment.
“The easiest thing I ever did in 30-plus years of practicing medicine was make somebody an appointment. That’s not real hard. You don’t have to go to school to do that,” said Roe, who also points out that more timely appointment often catch medical problems earlier and lead to more effective treatment.
He says the delays are not due to the lack of manpower.
“I found out at a hearing the other day that they have 32,000 people scheduling patients, not seeing patients but scheduling patients. They can’t even get that done,” said Roe.
Roe observes that the VA budget has also grown immensely since he came to Washington seven years ago, up from $97 billion in 2009 to $180 billion now.
“It’s almost double since I’ve been in the Congress. The money is there. There’s enough money to meet the needs of the veterans seeking care. It’s how you manage it,” added Roe.
And both Benishek and Roe have serious questions about that management.
“If a veteran calls the VA, they can dial ‘1’ for the pharmacy, dial ‘2’ for the clinic but if you want to talk with a mental health specialist because it’s an emergency and you’re thinking of harming yourself, you’ve got to hang up and dial a ten-digit number. And they can’t fix that,” said Benishek.
Benishek held a conference call with veterans in his district just last week and he says the ongoing complaints prove the problems have not been solved. He says it should come as no surprise given the immense bureaucracy and the fact very few people lost their jobs over the initial scandal.
Roe has discovered the very same thing with respect to the red tape enforced by the VA, including the treatment of veterans with new choice cards.
“When the doctor decided you needed an appointment, you had to go out front and meet with somebody there. They then sent that information to Washington, which then sent it to Tri-West, which is out in Arizona. If there was any misinformation along the way, the process started all over again. It was ridiculous,” said Roe.
Both Roe and Benishek say their interactions with McDonald suggest that the secretary is committed to seeing our veterans receive care they deserve, but Benishek says comments like the ones McDonald offered Monday morning need to stop.
“They should be concentrating on the nuts and bolts of solving the problems that they have at the VA, not making excuses and comparing it to Disneyland,” said Benishek.