RENO — Sitting on a bench outside the Veterans Administration Hospital in Reno, with temperatures climbing into the high 80s Thursday morning, 92-year-old Irene Chappell was ready to make her stand.
She held tightly to her walker in one hand and a small, white sign in another that read “Unfair to Veterans.”
A widow of two veterans, one of World War II, she had recently been made aware of the fact that not all those who serve the country are allowed equal, complimentary treatment through the facility.
The veteran with whom she spoke to at dinner one night, said he was not able to get the services he needed, she said. He was not eligible and couldn’t use it, she said.
“I worry about guys like him. He put his butt on the line for me, the least I could do was put mine on the line for him,” Chappell said.
Her first husband, who died years after returning from combat in World War II, was able to receive care at the same location, though a much older building.
“He actually passed away in the old hospital,” Chappell said. “I didn’t have to exchange a dime with them.”
Chappell said she would rather be spending the day outside the hospital, trying to get the word out to Reno about the inequity of medical costs for veterans, than sitting in a rocking chair learning to knit.
“I may be a dreamer, but I can’t sleep nights until I do something,” she said. “As long as I’m able, I’m not going to hit the rocking chair and as long as the good lord keeps me mobile, I’ll be doing something. I’m in fine health. My doctor said, the only problem is you never grow old. Maybe getting exciting about something helps.”
Chappell said she hopes the word spreads quickly.
“I’m hoping to break it wide open in Reno,” Chappell said. “I just want the word out there. I just want the veterans to know we’re out there. These guys never asked when they went over there.”
Chappell, who was told she would be in the way during her protest, as she was sitting on federal property, didn’t take it lightly.
“If I do break the law, I guess they’ll have to arrest me,” she said. “I don’t mind being there a few hours. What good is it if you can’t help people. I’m thankful to our vets for this county. Without them, where would we be?”
Darin Farr, the Public Affairs Officer for the Veterans Affairs Hospital, said the Reno facility really has no say in the federal mandate over funding who can be served.
“It’s a national policy, set by Veterans Affairs,” Farr said. “It’s set by budget limits. We don’t have any say locally. We are well aware of the limitations.”
However, Farr said, the hospital does work one-on-one with veterans to try to assist them in reducing their income levels enough by writing off medical costs, for instance, in order to qualify for benefits.
“We try to do everything possible so they can qualify,” Farr said.
Veterans benefits regulations were amended June 15, 2009 to expand enrollment of certain veterans with higher income levels. It did increase some thresholds, but does not remove consideration of income, according to hospital materials. Changes to the income threshold occur each year.
To view the income threshold tables, visit www.va.gov/healthbenefits/cost/income_thresholds.asp. To verify enrollment, call 1-877-222-8387 between 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
The Reno facility is an epicenter for northern Nevada and parts of northern California veterans to receive primary care, thoracic surgery, mental health care and many other services. Many services, such as neurosurgery and cardiac care must be done at partner hospitals in northern California or Renown Medical Centers, Farr said.
The 64-bed hospital serves 373,000 in outpatient visits and 4,200 in-patient stays per year. The facility also runs a full-service facility for homeless veterans down the road, where the homeless are assisted back into a stable lifestyle, Farr said.
Jason, a veteran who returned from Afghanistan, stood outside and was interested in what Chappell had to say.
“I agree wholeheartedly, no matter what your income, you should be able to get help for us,” said Jason, who didn’t want to give his last name. “I’m one of the lucky ones. I don’t have any copays.”
Chappell has led an active life during her 53 years in Reno. She has been a waitress, worked in the hotel industry, in public relations and then started a young masters chess club. She was honored as U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush’s 71st Point of Light and invited to the White House for her work with the young people in the community, her granddaughter said.
And, she hasn’t slowed down yet. With her third husband, Alan Chappell, the couple spends three afternoons a week running a chess club at the Boys and Girls Club in Reno, challenging the children to chess games.
“They call me the Chess Lady,” Chappell said.
In her brochure, given out during the afternoon hours, Chappell stressed the medical coverage for some veterans because these vets had “too many assets, too much income” while others are required to pay a copay for certain services rendered.
“Not too many years ago, our great United States of America took care of our Veterans’ medical needs 100 (percent),” the brochure said.
“This is wrong, unfair, unjust and just plain un-American,” she wrote. “Let’s give back to our veterans as they have given to us … 100 (percent), unconditionally.”
Her granddaughter Bernadette Taylor, 56, who helped her mother decorate her red walker and pass out the 200 flyers she made for the event, says she believes in her grandmother’s cause.
“I believe in what she’s doing,” Taylor said. “I think our veterans should be covered 100 percent, regardless of their status in our neighborhoods.”