Navigating the Bureaucracy

VA benefits are a godsend for many veterans and their families. However, getting access to these benefits isn’t always easy. There are applications and lengthy forms to fill out, which can be overwhelming. Carl Jewett, a retired Navy submariner turned VA claims agent, explained that the help veterans can get depends on the experience of those helping them file claims.

“I talk to a lot of vets who tell me that they tried to file a VA Disability Claim for an asbestos disease through their local Veteran Service Office, but were either told that they would not get approved and would have to appeal several times to have any chance of getting an approval, or that the Service Officer they met with had little to no knowledge of asbestos claims and how to get them approved by the VA.”

It is important for veterans to know that with a disease like mesothelioma, they need a specialist every step of the way. Experienced doctors and claims agents are a must because there are intricacies involved in mesothelioma claims that aren’t common with other VA claims. There are very few cases of mesothelioma, meaning very few people know their way through the system.

“But this is not rocket science,” said Jewett. “I walk vets through the forms they need and those that they don’t, and I make the process of applying for asbestos related VA claims very easy.”

More unsettling are the recent concerns over wait times to see a doctor for veterans stuck in the VA Health Care system. It can’t be overlooked that there have been serious issues in the VA Health Care system. While treatment has improved over the years, the VA has come under fire as stories of veterans waiting over a year to get treatment emerge.

This likely isn’t a surprise for many veterans, many of whom don’t expect much from the VA Health Care system. Jewett, a veteran himself, resonates the dissatisfaction of veterans seeking out benefits.

“People need to understand that the VA Health Care system is socialized medicine. It’s health care that is completely run by your federal government. So long wait times are part and parcel with the VA hospitals.”

Jewett, however, wasn’t completely critical of the VA Health Care system. He admitted there are great doctors and programs in the VA system for mesothelioma patients, even if they are few and far between.

“This is not to say that [VA hospitals] are all bad. Some facilities, like the mesothelioma department at the Boston VA, are terrific,” Jewett said.

Jewett told Mesothelioma Guide how he was able to help one particularly obstinate veteran. The veteran, having been through the gamut before, had serious doubts about the VA Health Care system.

“We assisted a Navy pipefitter in getting to Dr. Lebenthal back in Feb 2012,” said Jewett. “After Dr Lebenthal performed his surgery–a surgery his local VA Hospital told him he wasn’t even a candidate for–he told the staff ‘they should go to these other places around the country and show them how it’s supposed to be done.’ So, vets with mesothelioma need to know that they have options…options we can help them with.”

This veteran, after being pushed by his daughter (with Jewett’s help) to see Dr. Lebenthal at the VA Boston Healthcare System, has completely changed his outlook on the VA.

Although this veteran still has a long fight ahead of him, recent imaging tests detected no signs of mesothelioma, which is amazing considering he was initially told surgery wasn’t an option and that he only had 12 months to live.

The Importance of Seeing An Actual Specialist

Most VA hospitals feature general oncologists, but there are very few mesothelioma specialists in the system. Veterans should never accept their prognosis until they have seen a doctor who specializes in mesothelioma—not a general oncologist with the VA.

Jewett vented some of his frustration over the misconceptions of general oncologists being viewed as mesothelioma specialists and the lack of support available from the VA.

“Veterans with mesothelioma need to dispense with any preconceived notions they have about their eligibility to receive benefits like VA Disability Compensation and the VA Health Care system. If someone else has told you that you can’t get approved or that there are no treatment options for this disease beyond chemo, you need to view those naysayers with skepticism.”

The experience of the Navy pipefitter rings true with this statement as he was one of many veterans with mesothelioma who was told he had no options other than chemotherapy. Jewett offered a straightforward piece of advice toward veterans dealing with claims agents, veteran service officers and doctors:

“Don’t assume that they know what they are talking about if they aren’t an expert in treating mesothelioma or in filing mesothelioma claims with the VA.”

You Can’t Put A Price On Good Help

When Meladee Angus’ father was diagnosed with mesothelioma, her family was devastated. Fortunately, they turned to Jewett for help. “When my father was diagnosed with mesothelioma, our family struggled to find information on how to help him deal with it physically, emotionally and financially,” said Angus.

“My father was exposed to asbestos during his military service. We hit roadblocks at the local state VA office and Carl advised us on how to move beyond that office and ultimately my mother was awarded monthly dependency and indemnity compensation after my father’s death.”

One family he helped ended up only paying the cost of airfare to get treated by Dr. Lebenthal in Boston. Given that they would soon take advantage of disability compensation, the cost of the flights was completely manageable for them. Jewett has even been able to find flights for veterans at nearly a third of the original cost through a compassionate fare offered by Delta.

Stories like these help expose that there is hope even with a disease like mesothelioma. Many veterans have outlived their original prognosis and families have gotten the compensation they deserved.

The trick is finding an experienced agent like Carl Jewett to help navigate the intertwining channels of the bureaucracy.

“One big benefit of having me as their Service Rep is that I always help them in writing a detailed exposure summary necessary to get them approved,” Jewett said. “If you don’t explain in detail how you were exposed in the military and then contrast that to your civilian career, you simply aren’t going to get approved. So, in large part, I assist vets in identifying exposures that they don’t even know they had in the military…or have simply forgotten about.”

There are many doubts and misgivings veterans have about the VA. Some may get overwhelmed, feeling inclined to give up on getting their benefits. Some may not want to deal with undue stress. People like Jewett, however, are mitigating all these issues for veterans across the country, helping them file successful claims. And as an old Navy submariner, it doesn’t hurt that Jewett has some skin in the game.

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    About the Writer, Andrew Devine

    Andrew Devine is a contributing writer for Mesothelioma Guide. He has developed an interest in educating patients and their families on everything from new treatments to what to expect after diagnosis.