Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald said Tuesday he regrets remarks he made comparing long wait times at VA health care sites to waiting in line at a Disney amusement park.
“It was never my intention to suggest that I don’t take our mission of serving veterans very seriously,” McDonald said in a written statement. “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.”
McDonald’s statement came after a Republican senator called for his resignation and GOP lawmakers and veterans’ service groups slammed his remarks as insulting and inappropriate.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said McDonald’s “preposterous statement is right out of Never Never Land” and said the VA leader has shown he cannot ensure that veterans receive health care in a timely manner.
“Dismissing wait times when veterans can often wait months for an appointment is negligent and a clear sign that new leadership is needed at the VA,” Blunt said as he called for McDonald to step down.
McDonald said at a breakfast Monday that the VA should not use wait times as a measure of success, comparing waits for VA health care to the hours people wait for rides at Disney theme parks. McDonald said a veterans’ health-care experience was more important than the time spend waiting for an appointment.
Democrats called Blunt’s comment a blatant bid to boost his re-election chances.
“Senator Blunt of all people should know another resignation at the VA will likely only make things worse,” said Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, Blunt’s likely Democratic challenger.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who is known for his own verbal miscues, supported McDonald.
Referring to himself as “an expert at wrong choice of words,” Reid said McDonald “could have done a better job talking about Disneyland, but he didn’t. He is a good man, he’s doing his best under very, very difficult circumstances. So I support Secretary McDonald all the way.”
McDonald initially refused to apologize for his comments.
Earlier in the day, in an interview on MSNBC Tuesday, McDonald said he is focused on the entire experience of former military personnel at VA-run facilities rather than just wait times.
Host Andrea Mitchell asked the VA chief, who only days earlier had been floated as a possible running mate for likely Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, if he would say he is sorry for the Disney analogy.
His response: “I’m here to improve the veteran experience. I’m here to get more veterans in for care. I’m here to reduce the disability claim backlog. You know, wait times are important, but they’re not the only measure of veteran experience.
“And that’s what veterans are telling us. You know, we’ve talked to a lot of veterans,” he said. “It’s important, and if I was misunderstood or if I said the wrong thing, I’m glad that I have the opportunity to correct it.”
But later Tuesday, McDonald issued his written apology.