The Hidden Irony of GOP Outrage over the VA Secretary’s Disney Comparison

The Hidden Irony of GOP Outrage over the VA Secretary’s Disney Comparison

Poor VA Secretary Bob McDonald. Neither he nor the Veterans Health Administration he oversees can ever catch a break.

On May 23, a reporter questioned McDonald about the VHA’s tracking of patient appointment times around the country. McDonald’s predecessor was forced to quit over allegations of appointment delays and a cover-up at a Phoenix VHA hospital, and McDonald has often been on the defensive about the issue as the agency tries to hire the additional caregivers needed for the influx of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

In his response to the reporter, McDonald suggested that in the meantime, the VHA’s performance should be judged by a broader set of metrics. “What really counts is how does the veteran feel about their encounter with the VA?” McDonald said. “When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? What is important is your satisfaction with the experience.”

Unfortunately for the secretary, his invocation of the Magic Kingdom triggered a pack-journalism social-media response. The Koch-funded Concerned Veterans for America (CVA), a leading advocate of VHA privatization, immediately denounced McDonald on its website. According to CVA, McDonald showed disrespect for all VHA patients: “The sacrifice that accompanies earning that care is not the same as the sacrifice of taking a road trip to Florida,” the CVA declared. “Shame on Bob McDonald for trivializing veteran wait times this way.”  

American Legion National Commander Dale Barnett was similarly offended. House Speaker Paul Ryan called the remark “disgusting” and “beyond the pale,” a sentiment shared by House Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Jeff Miller, a frequent critic of McDonald and ally of CVA in seeking to dismantle and privatize the VHA. There was even talk of calling for McDonald’s resignation.

After two days of negative news coverage, McDonald, a veteran himself, issued a clarification and apology to any veteran who felt his comments trivialized the VHA’s “noble mission.”

But lost in the Republican baying for more blood was a great political irony: Throughout private-sector health care, Disney’s corporate model for gauging customer satisfaction is now widely used to determine patient satisfaction and to regulate the patient “experience.”

Quality patient care requires an application of skills, experience, and teamwork quite different from the prerequisites for good “customer service” in the hospitality or entertainment industries. Yet treating sick people as “customers” has become part of mainstream management thinking.

The Disneyfication trend took off ten years ago after consultant Fred Lee published the bestselling If Disney Ran Your Hospital: 9 1/2 Things You Would Do Differently. Patient surveys using methods and metrics from resort hotels and amusement parks are now the norm in U.S. health care. A hospital’s results on the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems standardized survey even determine, in part, its reimbursement rate for federally subsidized patients.

Disneyfication has spawned a huge crowd of high-priced consultants, like Lee, or Quint Studer of the Studer Group, who teach hospitals how to improve their patient-qua-customer experience to score well on questionnaires. As Studer puts it in his HCAHPS Handbook, hospital administrators need to “manage the patient’s expectations” to succeed, by convincing patients they are receiving good personal care—even if the hospital has poor nurse-patient ratios or lousy patient safety records.

In some hospitals, nursing staff trained and managed under this model have been forced to use scripts when interacting with patients and families. They are coached to smile and repeat words and phrases (such as “excellent care”) that administrators want to see echoed in patient surveys.

Some hospitals now designate an employee to be “chief patient experience officer” (CXO), a position enjoying executive status. As CEO of the Cleveland Clinic, Delos “Toby” Cosgrove, now vice-chairman of the VA Commission on Care, has overseen annual patient-experience conferences for the past seven years. Despite having both a CXO and a patient experience office, the Cleveland Clinic has been investigated for patient-safety lapses that almost resulted in the hospital’s suspension from the Medicare program. Some suspect Cosgrove withdrew his name for consideration as VA secretary because confirmation hearings would have led to negative publicity for the clinic.

Inappropriately treating—and, in fact, trivializing—sick patients as customers is a central feature of health-care corporatization, and represents everything the VHA has never been and should not become. If it’s not good for veterans, it shouldn’t be good for any of us. But that would mean Republican critics would apply the same standard to the VHA as they do to private-sector health care. Dream on.