TALLAHASSEE — This week, U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald was forced to apologize after comparing long waits for VA health care to lines at a Disney theme park.
Criticism, especially from conservatives, was swift.
And rivals in Florida's Republican U.S. Senate primary — which includes an Army special forces veteran, a Navy reservist and a congressman who sits on the committee that funds the VA — are no exception.
Four of the five Republican Senate candidates have called for McDonald to lose his job.
"The VA utterly and systematically fails our veterans," Carlos Beruff, a millionaire developer from Bradenton, said in a statement this week. "The fact that VA Secretary McDonald is now comparing VA medical centers to a family vacation destination is disgusting."
Initially supportive after McDonald was appointed in 2014, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Ponte Vedra Beach, now says that the secretary should resign in light of this week's Disney comments, as well as the slow crawl of reforms.
"Secretary McDonald gave a lot of veterans hope that he would change things when he assumed office, but his recent comments and lack of reform inside the VA bureaucracy demonstrate that he is out of touch with the problems veterans face and should step aside," he said.
Defense contractor Todd Wilcox said he was enraged by the comments. He also said that long — and in some cases worsening — wait lists for care are symptoms of a "failure of leadership," starting at Obama.
"How disrespectful can you be to veterans? … It's no day at Disney going to the veterans administration," Wilcox said. "If he had any intestinal fortitude, he'd resign outright."
Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera of Miami said there has been a lack of accountability in the VA.
"He has grossly failed to hold himself or his agency accountable to our nation's heroes, and for that he should be fired immediately for cause," Lopez-Cantera said in a statement.
Just one Republican Senate candidate said firing McDonald would be going too far.
U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, told the Times/Herald that the comments were "disgraceful" and "insulting to those who lost their lives as a result of the wait times." McDonald's apology took too long, Jolly said, but he disagreed that the secretary should lose his job.
Neither of the two chief Democrats running for the Senate has called for McDonald, who was appointed by Obama, to resign.
U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, condemned the comments as "a disservice to all the hardworking people who are trying to help our veterans."
However, he said, "resigning wouldn't solve all the serious problems we have in the VA right now, and that's what the secretary needs to focus on."
The other contender in the Democratic primary, U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, was not available to comment. His congressional office issued a statement about his efforts to help Orlando veterans while in office.
McDonald's controversial comments came at a breakfast Monday morning in Washington, D.C. "When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? Or what's important?" he said. "What's important is, what's your satisfaction with the experience?"
They have reignited calls for reform in the VA, which has been under intense scrutiny for wait periods so long that many veterans have died before receiving care. Jolly released a letter Wednesday showing that 4,200 veterans had been mistakenly declared dead by the VA and lost their benefits.
He and DeSantis have both called for allowing veterans to use their benefits at health care providers other than VA hospitals and doctors.
"If you do have veterans who are getting clogged up in the system who are getting stuck on waiting lists, they should have the ability to go access private care," he said at a Tampa town hall last week sponsored by conservative veterans group Concerned Veterans for America.
Wilcox said the problems in the VA come from an entrenched bureaucracy and politicians who haven't made veterans a priority. What's more, he said, such problems could make it harder to recruit an all-volunteer military in the future.
Murphy has advocated for helping veterans cut through red tape by allowing congressional offices to access VA information.
But, he said, the VA won't run smoothly without more money and increased staffing.
"A lot of this really has come down to resources," he said. "When I go to the VA in my district, it doesn't look as up-to-date as it should. We've got to invest more money at the end of the day to make sure they're working with the best equipment, best doctors and all that."
Contact Michael Auslen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MichaelAuslen.