There are roughly 21 million veterans in the United States today, and providing care for them has been a rocky road. The Veterans Health Administration has over 1,700 care sites around the country and says the system serves almost 9 million veterans each year.
Despite the large number of facilities, the VA health system has had its fair share of problems, especially when it comes to access of care. Veterans have had to face long wait times, difficulties going to a doctor of their choice, and unanswered claims for medical benefits.
These issues can become especially intensified for veterans diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Patients face high treatment costs that only continue to grow, and often need to seek help from a mesothelioma specialist in the private sector.
Last week, President Donald Trump signed a bill that will provide some relief for veterans while the Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin continues to work on a long-term plan. Though this current bill won’t be able to correct all the difficulties veterans currently face, it’s a positive step toward bettering the long riddled VA healthcare system.
Veterans’ Choice Program Extension and Improvement Act
Trump signed The Veterans’ Choice Program Extension and Improvement Act last Wednesday with the promise of taking better care of veterans who in the past weren’t treated properly. The new act provides an extension for stopgap services while Shulkin works on the long-term plan for healthcare, which is expected to be revealed in the fall.
This new act extends the funding and operations of the Veterans’ Choice program, which was created in 2014 amidst a scandal in the veteran healthcare system. Reports at the time emerged claiming a number of VA health facilities were falsifying information to cover up the months-long wait times veterans faced before receiving care.
The Choice program allotted $10 billion to help alleviate these wait times at VA facilities. It was created to help veterans who had to wait more than 30 days at their VA medical center, or had to travel more than 40 miles to receive care. Those veterans can instead seek care through the private sector and still have medical assistance from the VA to pay for that care. The funding was originally set to run out this August with nearly $1 billion left unspent, but Trump’s bill will extend funding until January while Shulkin develops new reforms.
Beyond extending the funding, the new bill seeks to improve some of the current difficulties under this program. In its old version, veterans generally had to pay for any co-pays or deductibles out-of-pocket up front. There used to be many third-party systems in place for the private sector to receive the full payment for this care. Under the new bill, a system will be in place for the VA to directly pay the private facilities instead.
Veterans also face serious wait times for VA benefits. When Former President Obama was in office, he pledged to work on eliminating a backlog of about 600,000 unanswered claims. The Obama administration was able to reduce it to around 100,000, but it proved difficult to keep up with new claims flooding in, as well as a growing number of appeals. Currently, the Veterans Benefits Administration shows over 370,000 claims waiting for a decision.
Though the current extension plan doesn’t provide an immediate answer to reducing the delay in deciding and paying these claims, it will hopefully be addressed in the long-term care plan.
How This Legislation Affects Veterans with Mesothelioma
This new bill can hopefully positively impact veterans who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma. Veterans make up about one-third of mesothelioma cases because asbestos was used so heavily used throughout the military branches. After exposure, it takes decades for symptoms to surface, and by this point the aggressive cancer has likely progressed to a later stage.
Mesothelioma can be difficult to treat, especially at a later stage. Since it’s a rare cancer, specialists are few and spread all over the country. Many mesothelioma specialists work in the private sector, though there are some VA healthcare facilities that have strong oncology programs and the means to treat this rare disease.
With the reforms in this bill, however, it may be easier for veterans to receive care from these private facilities without facing high out-of-pocket expenses. Treatment costs for mesothelioma can add up quickly, even before an official diagnosis is made. Financial assistance is so important for many patients to just stay above water with their bills.
Because of the nature of the disease, patients and their families may be eligible for compensation to help cover loss of wages and medical expenses, as well as the pain and suffering associated with such a difficult diagnosis. Filing a VA claim is one option for veterans to receive financial assistance. To be eligible, veterans must have been exposed to asbestos during their service, have medical documentation of their diagnosis, and have been discharged under conditions other than dishonorable.
As noted, sometimes this claim process can become heavily backlogged and take a long time just for a review. Working with an experienced mesothelioma lawyer can help take some of the difficulties out of the process, and understand if filing a VA claim is the best route for an individual case. There are other compensation options available for some veterans, such as pursuing a lawsuit against the asbestos manufacturer or filing a claim against an asbestos trust fund.
Hopefully this new legislation and the larger plan to come will help transform the VA health system to better assist veterans in a more timely fashion. The new bill gives hopes for improvements to allow veterans more choice of how to receive care, and hopefully a better system to keep up with growing VA claims.