Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald on Monday likened the significance of measuring the amount of time it takes veterans to receive healthcare from the department to waiting for rides at Disney parks, an attempt to downplay the value of the figures, which attracted widespread criticism from department critics and veterans' organizations.
"We should be measuring the veterans' satisfaction. I mean, what really counts is how does the veteran feel about their encounter with the VA," McDonald said to reporters at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. "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," he continued. Disney is the parent company of ABC News.
According to department data, as of May 1, patients wait an average of seven days for primary care, 10 days for specialty care and four days for mental health care. The department drew fire two years ago when a whistleblower said that 40 veterans died waiting up to 21 months for care.
The head of the VA at the time, Eric Shinseki, resigned.
The comments were set upon immediately by politicians and advocacy groups.
This is not make-believe, Mr. Secretary. Veterans have died waiting in those lines. https://t.co/OxfT3AYzTi— Paul Ryan (@SpeakerRyan) May 23, 2016
Obama’s VA Secretary just said we shouldn't measure— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 23, 2016
wait times. Hillary says VA problems are not ‘widespread.’ I will take care of
"You can’t compare veteran healthcare to a tourist’s experience," House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Florida, said in an interview with ABC News, adding that he still supports McDonald.
"There's no question that Secretary McDonald still has my confidence, but he has got to quit singing the song of the status quo like he has done in many instances on accountability,” Miller continued.
The American Legion also took issue with the comments.
“The American Legion agrees that the VA Secretary’s analogy between Disneyland and VA wait times was an unfortunate comparison because people don’t die while waiting to go on Space Mountain,” National Commander Dale Barnett said in a statement.
McDonald, an Army veteran, was appointed and confirmed in 2014 amid efforts to reform VA care and reduce waiting times after reports that agency officials had doctored waiting time records, replacing Shinseki.
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nevada, sent a letter to McDonald Monday afternoon, criticizing the secretary for exhibiting "a severe lack of judgement drawing into question your ability to provide accountability within your agency."
The VA said in a statement that it takes the duty of serving veterans "seriously."
"We know that Veterans are still waiting too long for care. In our effort to determine how we can better meet Veterans’ needs, knowing that their satisfaction is our most important measure, we have heard them tell us that wait times alone are not the only indication of their experience with VA and that’s why we must transform the way we do business," the agency said in a statement.
"We have learned that figures measuring the wrong metric can cause unintended consequences and confusion like the 14 day measure back in 2014 that was central to employees managing to a metric rather than to the real need of our patients."
The agency says that it is the only healthcare system that publicly shares wait times.
ABC's Cindy Smith, Ali Weinberg and Justin Fishel contributed to this report.