The length of time adds to the frustration, particularly when a claim is eventually denied.
Navy veteran Ron Graus, 67, of Detroit spent much of his time on ships in the waters off Vietnam (1965-68), serving as a boiler technician — one of the military jobs that rendered workers most vulnerable to asbestos exposure.
U.S. Navy veteran Ron Graus is diagnosed with COPD, but does not receive help from the VA for his condition.
Although he has suffered from COPD for more than a decade, the VA doesn't recognize it as an asbestos-related disease. He was diagnosed in October 2014 with pulmonary fibrosis, a disease the VA does recognize. Shortly afterward, he filed a disability claim with the VA.
Six months later, his rejection notification arrived. The doctor who had examined him didn't document the asbestos exposure properly in the case. Graus appealed quickly after a second doctor helped file another claim, but his appeal was denied in October 2015.
A third pulmonologist will examine him again in mid-November. Graus hopes this doctor can convince the VA about the severity of his condition.
Graus struggles to catch his breath when he walks a block outside his home. Standing in the shower for more than five minutes tires him. He doesn't need an oxygen tank yet, but he's getting close.
I feel really let down by the Navy. It's terrible. It's all about the money and the benefits. They're trying to say none of my problems stem from being a boiler tech in the Navy, but you know it was. Asbestos caused this. I think what they're doing to me is just wrong.
U.S. Navy Veteran
Too often, the VA official deciding whether to approve or deny a claim is not versed in the intricacies of asbestos diseases, which usually have lengthy latency periods. Mesothelioma is often not diagnosed until 20-50 years after exposure to asbestos.
Gary L., for example, is a U.S. Coast Guard veteran (1971-75) who had his disability claim recently denied, despite developing mesothelioma a year ago. He already underwent aggressive surgery. His asbestos exposure was extensive on the three older ships where he served. And it was his only known exposure.
His denial letter, which arrived nine months after it was filed, was baffling, but it exemplified the mistakes the Veterans Benefits Administration can make.
It said I was denied because 'your service records do not contain any complaints, treatments or diagnosis of this condition.' It was like they didn't even read my application. They had no idea what an asbestos disease was or how it worked. I had sent 67 pages of documentation that included every test I took.
U.S. Coast Guard Veteran
The VA admits mistakes can be made, reporting a 14 percent error rate on its own website. A report from the Center for Investigative Reporting, though, recently put the error rate closer to 38 percent.