Tapped by President Obama less than two years ago to fix the scandal-ridden Department of Veterans Affairs, VA Secretary Robert McDonald is now facing calls for his resignation amid persistent agency mistakes and his own highly publicized gaffes.
Mr. McDonald’s latest misstep, dismissively comparing veterans’ wait times at VA clinics to lines for rides at Disneyland, further eroded goodwill toward him among lawmakers and veterans groups, prompting a Tuesday evening apology after a whole day of refusals.
“Secretary McDonald’s preposterous statement is right out of Never-never Land,” Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “I call on him to resign because it’s clear he cannot prioritize getting our veterans the health care they deserve and have earned in a timely manner.”
The lawmaker said Mr. McDonald’s comment trivializing wait times — when veterans can often wait months for an appointment with a doctor — “is negligent and a clear sign that new leadership is needed at the VA.”
Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, also called for Mr. McDonald to step down.
An official at one veterans group said Mr. McDonald is now soft-pedaling the problem of wait times at VA facilities because he hasn’t been able to fix it in two full years.
“You can make a pretty compelling argument that things are actually worse than when he took over,” said Dan Caldwell, a retired Marine who is vice president for legislative and political action at the Concerned Veterans for America. He said VA data show that the number of appointments for veterans that are scheduled more than 30 days in advance has increased by about 20 percent nationwide since 2014.
A Government Accountability Office report last month found that the VA has not done enough to prevent schedulers from manipulating appointment wait times, and the agency’s wait-time data are still misleading the public on how long veterans wait for care.
“Ongoing scheduling problems continue to affect the reliability of wait-time data,” the GAO said of its audit that ran from January 2015 to March.
The report blamed the VA for a “piecemeal approach” to correcting problems since the wait-time scandal broke in 2014 in Phoenix, where schedulers created phony wait lists and at least 40 veterans died awaiting care. In the auditors’ review of six VA medical centers, they found improper scheduling in 25 percent of veterans’ appointments.
Mr. Caldwell noted that it was the Phoenix wait-time scandal that led to the forced resignation of VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki and the president’s selection of Mr. McDonald to lead the agency.
“This is the very practice that got his predecessor fired,” he said. “Whoever the next president is should not retain Secretary McDonald. Were it not for the fact that we have no faith in the Obama administration to appoint a competent, reform-minded secretary, and the fact that McDonald’s deputy, Sloan Gibson, is just as bad as him, CVA would likely be calling for Secretary McDonald’s resignation today.”
The firestorm of criticism began Monday, when Mr. McDonald told attendees at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with reporters that questions over delays in care distracted from overall satisfaction rates.
“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.”
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said Mr. McDonald’s comments were “disgusting” and showed a lack of empathy for veterans. But he stopped short of calling for his resignation.
“I don’t know how he’s going to fix it, but he needs to fix it,” Mr. Ryan said.
Rep. Vern Buchanan, Florida Republican, said Mr. McDonald’s comment “exposes a shocking indifference to an issue that is life or death for millions of our veterans awaiting care in VA facilities.” He called on the secretary to apologize or resign.
Even Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican and a supporter of Mr. McDonald, called on him to apologize.
“I think the secretary owes veterans of the United States of America, and this committee, an apology,” Mr. Isakson said. “Waiting in line does mean something. It’s one thing to wait for a roller coaster; it’s another thing to wait for a blood transfusion.”
Mr. McDonald did apologize Tuesday evening, saying in a statement that “I deeply regret” the words he used, while also using the conditional “if I offended” tense and repeating that he intended no offense.
“It was never my intention to suggest that I don’t take our mission of serving veterans very seriously,” the secretary said.
“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.”
The statement also came after an appearance on MSNBC earlier in the day in which he refused to apologize three times, saying his comments were misunderstood.
“If I was misunderstood, or if I said the wrong thing, I’m glad that I’ve had the opportunity to correct it,” he said.
He defended his efforts since 2014 to improve the VA and its hospitals.
“Look, we get it, wait times are important,” Mr. McDonald said. “There’s no question wait times are important. But there’s more to the veteran experience than just wait times.”
Under Mr. McDonald’s stewardship the agency has failed to fulfill Mr. Shinseki’s promise, issued in January 2013, to cut the number of unresolved veterans’ disability claims that were 125 days old or older to zero by Sept. 30, 2015. As of this week the backlog stood at 74,452 claims, down from a peak of 611,000 in March 2013.
“Zero for us is not an absolute zero,” said Allison Hickey, a top VA official who resigned last October rather than face a congressional hearing into mismanaging a taxpayer-funded employee-relocation program.
As the claims backlog has been reduced, veterans groups point out, the appeals backlog has soared to more than 400,000 cases, up from about 167,000 in 2005. Veterans are allowed to appeal decisions about their disability payments endlessly.
The agency says about three-fourths of veterans are already receiving some benefits when they appeal seeking greater benefits. But the backlog means that some veterans never receive a final answer — agency records show that about 32,000 veterans have died since 2009 with appeals unresolved.
Some lawmakers, including administration allies, blame Congress for contributing to problems with wait times at the VA. Sen. Mark R. Warner, Virginia Democrat, and other lawmakers of both parties called on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Tuesday to approve leases of more than $1 million each for 18 major medical facilities in 12 states that have been awaiting congressional authorization for more than one year.
Mr. Warner said among the projects stuck in limbo is a 155,000-square-foot outpatient facility in Hampton Roads, Virginia.
“The simple fact is the wait times can and will go back up unless Congress does the right thing and authorizes a new outpatient facility for Hampton Roads, which has one of the fastest-growing veterans populations in the country,” he said.
The growing number of critics of Mr. McDonald also say the secretary is sometimes his own worst enemy, making unforced errors in his public pronouncements. He has overstated to Congress the number of VA employees disciplined for wrongdoing in the wait-time scandal and even was caught on camera last year falsely telling a veteran that he once served in the U.S. Special Forces.
The top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, called the secretary’s remarks “unfortunate” and said they don’t reflect Mr. McDonald’s intention to improve the VA’s delivery of services.
“Part of delivery is doing it without delay,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “Time is a critical factor, as well as the quality of service.”
• Douglas Ernst contributed to this report.