Diary

Clueless Ramblings from Bernie Sanders' and VA Secretary Robert McDonald

Recently, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) and other liberals called for California to adopt the Department of Veterans Affairs model that has the government negotiate the price of prescription drugs.   How anyone thinks the VA, an agency so steeped in scandals and failure, is a model for anything is beyond me.

Sanders’ call is as clueless as the recent comments from Veterans Affairs Sec. Robert McDonald.  McDonald’s comments are so colossally clueless, it’s hard to believe he really said them.

“When you got 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?” McDonald, the former CEO of Procter and Gamble, told a room full of reporters Monday.

Given McDonald’s business experience – a West Point graduate who rose steadily through the ranks at the blue chip P&G, I have to assume McDonald badly botched his point, because the idea that Disneyland doesn’t measure something as basic as line wait time is just idiotic.

Lines are of momentous importance to Disney or any other amusement park. In 2010, the company installed a state-of-the-art control room beneath the Cinderella Castle at their Florida, Walt Disney World location.

The analysis begins by scrutinizing hotel reservations and flight bookings to forecast attendance, according to a behind-the-scenes look by the New York Times. If a ride or restaurant starts becoming a bottleneck, a team of technicians, monitoring every nook and cranny of the park from a network of clandestine surveillance cameras, employ a range of techniques to improve the experience, from sending in employee reinforcements to dispatching a Disney character to entertain the line to subtly altering parade routes.

365 nights a year at Disneyland, in Anaheim, California, over 600 workers flood into the park after the last guest has left to clean and maintain the park while most of America sleeps.

The workers use special paint that dries before the guests arrive the next morning and a team of divers to retrieve submerged trash. 300 gardeners “work to give the park its trademarked manicured look,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

Officials at the VA’s Phoenix system and several other places, if you don’t recall the details of the scandal that sent McDonald’s predecessor packing, created an elaborate double paperwork system to cover up outrageous wait times for their patients.

In numerous, well-documented instances, veterans died while waiting months to see a doctor.

The cover up that hid the worsening wait times was designed to protect managers’ annual bonuses. At the end of 2014, at the height of the scandal, the agency announced it was issuing $142 million in bonuses, including to employees at the “worst of the worst” facilities.

There’s a theme here, which is that Disney takes removing chewing gum from Main Street more seriously than the Veterans Affairs Department takes reducing wait times for veterans. Why is that?

Certainly, the VA’s treatment of veterans is shocking, even for a federal agency. There’s no excuse, ever, for the inhuman callousness the entire agency has displayed to its patients.

But it’s difficult to imagine any part of the federal government engaging in anything as sophisticated, cutting-edge, at scale, and effective as Disney’s efforts to create a nice day at its parks.

It does not seem possible to engineer the highest levels of human achievement with the incentive structure of a federal agency.

Unlike Disneyland, the VA can’t fail. Despite its heinous mistreatment of men and women desperately seeking the medical care they were promised when they signed up to risk their lives to protect ours, the taxpayer dollars will still go into its accounts next year. It’s employees won’t be fired.

But the VA can’t really succeed, either. No one gets rich if it does an awesome job. Ambitious civil servants are more likely to benefit from preventing publicly acknowledged disasters than instituting effective – and risky – reforms.

All of this is to say, socialist Sen. Sanders’ plan to replicate the VA model across the entire U.S. health care system is exactly backwards.

Giving bureaucrats more power won’t reduce drug prices, it will instead prompt clumsy efforts to create the appearance of savings – like the VA officials who covered up the wait times, the Sanders administration would cut off access to crucial drugs to avoid the price, or institute strict rationing, only to find it backfiring in countless unforeseen ways.

The solution is to bring competition, allocation by price, and consumer choice into the health care system wherever possible. An example of a market-based system in government the VA should implement is Medicare Part D, which has created significant downward pressure on drug prices, one of the few success stories on the health care front in the last few years.

Putting crucial resources into the hands of centralized government planning is always a disaster. Sanders wants to move health care in exactly the wrong direction. McDonald’s cringeworthy Disney comments provide a helpful reminder why.