Editorial: VA chief puts foot in mouth

In 2014, President Obama signed a bipartisan bill intended to “reform” the Department of Veterans Affairs. But given this week’s comments by VA Secretary Robert McDonald, it’s fair to ask whether the embattled agency has implemented any reform at all.

Mr. McDonald replaced former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who resigned in 2014 after it was discovered that employees with the agency had subjected veterans to routine delays in processing their disability and compensation claims, making countless veterans wait months (and months) for appointments. As many as 40 died while awaiting care. VA employees also created secret wait lists to cover up the long wait times, and received bonuses for their efforts.

Given how Mr. McDonald got his job, one might think he would understand that the issue of VA wait times is a sensitive one. Apparently not.

Mr. McDonald, an Army veteran himself, stuck his foot in his mouth during a Christian Science Monitor breakfast on Monday when he compared VA wait times to the hours people spend in line at Disney theme parks. “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?” Mr. McDonald said. “And what I would like to move to, eventually, is that kind of measure.”

Not surprisingly, Republicans pounced on Mr. McDonald’s remarks. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said the comments show “just how seriously the Obama administration’s VA is taking life-or-death problems” at the agency. He reminded Mr. McDonald that “veterans have died waiting in those lines.” Former POW Sen. John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said, “Our veterans aren’t in line for a theme park ride — they are in desperate need of timely access to quality medical treatment.”

The VA’s problem with wait times — and Mr. McDonald’s flippant comments — are but a small example of the agency’s system-wide culture of indifference, neglect and malfeasance. The average VA construction project typically runs an average of 35 months late and $360 million over budget. Meanwhile, despite the incompetence and inertia, VA employees are rewarded with promotions and bonuses.

The question is no longer whether the VA needs reform but whether it should be privatized entirely. Absent that debate, however, let’s hope Mr. McDonald — a West Point graduate with a background in the private sector as well as the military — responds to his recent misstep with a renewed commitment to upending the status quo and to ensuring veterans receive the type of care and service that they need and deserve.

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