RENO, Nev. (MyNews4.com & KRNV) -- They fought for our country, but now they are fighting for health care. Two very different veterans are struggling with the Sierra Nevada VA hospital in Reno. Both claim their appointments are consistently scheduled, only to be canceled.
In recent audit data, the Reno VA hospital has shown improvements in wait times for primary care visits. Some local veterans don't believe the numbers reflect reality.
It is the small moments with his family that Christopher Jackson wants to hold on to. "My wife and kids can't afford to lose me."
The two-tour U.S. Army veteran said he is battling to see his primary care doctor at the Reno VA hospital. "It’s like the war never ended. When the war's over, and you've come home, you shouldn't have to fight your government."
Jackson said he picked up gastrointestinal problems like many of his comrades in Macedonia. His small intestines were removed in 2012, and he now suffers from cramping pain. He had to sign an opioid agreement.
"It makes me feel like a criminal," said Jackson. "Because the requirement is that I’m not allowed to cancel a doctor’s appointment."
However, Jackson shows News 4 several cancellation postcards from the hospital. The first card for his three-month follow-up was canceled, Jackson said, "for no reason." The second appointment, scheduled on his anniversary, he said, "just disappeared." The rescheduled appointment on July 24 was also canceled.
He had three promptly-scheduled appointments, but none of them materialized. "The last time I’ve actually seen and spoken to my primary care doctor was December 6th, 2013."
Under the opioid agreement, Jackson cannot get pain medication from the emergency room or outside pharmacies, and his pain needs can only be addressed during scheduled appointments.
"So what am I supposed to do," said Jackson. "I'm suffering. I’m caught in a vicious black hole or cycle."
Jackson is not the only one struggling with the VA. 61-year-old veteran, Barry, who only wanted to be identified by his first name, invited News 4 to follow him during his visit to the hospital.
Due to privacy laws, we could not record his interactions, but we recorded his reaction. Barry is seen tearing up after an attendant tells him to calm down, because he was, "making it harder than it had to be."
This remark allegedly came after Barry asked why his electric wheelchair had not been fixed. "It's very frustrating. I used to be able to do some many things."
Barry said he is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and stage-4 Parkinson’s disease. He said it has been two months since his medication has been refilled. His tremors are clearly visible, and he has problems speaking, keeping balance, and suffers memory loss.
Barry said his problem with the VA is also keeping appointments. "They had rescheduled it without notifying me by phone, or letter."
News 4 spoke with the hospital, asking them if the hospital and clinics have authority to cancel appointments so frequently, on the same day. "It's no different than any other health care organization," said Public Relations Officer Darin Farr. "People get sick, even in our own medical care, or things come up."
Farr said there are challenges within such a large system and miscommunication can happen, such as Barry’s case. "He's getting caught in the middle and nobody's aware until he says something. We're not omnipotent. We are health care providers, but like I said, we're not mind readers."
Even with a staff of 1,200 for 40,000 enrollees, Farr said cases of cyclical appointment issues are not an understaffing problem. "It's a communication issue more than anything else."
He said it is a challenge to communicate with different age groups. Older veterans prefer snail mail, while younger veterans are more tech savvy. Those with cognitive problems may get confused, and their contact information may be out of date.
"Marrying those communication styles can be a challenge, because one size does not fit all," Farr said.
In cases were appointments are canceled due to unforeseen circumstances, Farr said they are rescheduled within two weeks.
That was the case for Jackson, but he’s still hasn't been able to hold an appointment. When asked if he thought it was a rare coincidence, he said, "I can see every once in a while, but to not be seen by my doctor since December of 2013, that's ludicrous."
No matter what category a patient falls into, Farr said it is important to report complaints to his or her patient advocate.
Jackson said he has tried that, but all he gets is silence. "There's nothing but silence. No response."
However, Farr maintains the majority of Reno’s 40,000 veteran patients do not experience this vicious cycle of canceled appointments. "With that type of size comes certain types of challenges from time to time. We're addressing them. We're moving forward."
To that, Jackson said even if they have failed one veteran, they have failed all. "No man left behind. If you do lose a veteran, because of him slipping, he or she 'falling through the cracks' is unacceptable, because what are we saying to the veterans? What are we saying to the country?"
Since News 4 started asking about Barry’s frustrations, the VA has put him in direct contact with upper management for his special needs.
Jackson has not gotten a new appointment, and is now looking for private care.
According to the most recent VA audit data, the average wait time for primary care at the Reno VA hospital for an established patient is about 10 days. It ranks 11th worst out of 141 in the nation.
The longest wait time is in Fayetteville, North Carolina at nearly 30 days. The shortest is in Butler, Pennsylvania at less than a half day.