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Getting from a Local VA Clinic to a Top Mesothelioma Specialist

VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System in Michigan

Mesothelioma is one of the toughest forms of cancer to treat, so it should come as no surprise your local VA clinic is probably not up to the task.

But you might not realize the national VA health care system can provide access to some of the best mesothelioma specialists in the country.

Once you appreciate how important it is to receive mesothelioma treatment from a medical center with the right tools and expertise, the question becomes: “How do I get from here to there?”

When it comes to crafting a treatment plan for asbestos-related cancer, there’s a sharp difference between the generalized approach of most doctors and the expert opinion of a specialist.

A few prominent mesothelioma specialists work within the VA system, providing cutting-edge treatment to veterans. The VA can arrange for veterans to travel to these specialists at no extra cost or cover the expenses of seeing a mesothelioma specialist at a private institution.

Rare Cancer Requires Highly Specialized Care

Mesothelioma is rare compared to other forms of cancer, so very few doctors — within or outside the VA system — have the training and experience required to effectively treat this disease.

A 2017 study published in the Journal of Surgical Research describes the experiences of 38 veterans diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma who obtained a second opinion at the VA Boston Healthcare System. The VA system in Boston shares staff and facilities with the International Mesothelioma Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

The majority of the patients had been initially prescribed only chemotherapy or symptom management by their local doctors, and many of them were told they had only months to live.

When mesothelioma specialists in Boston evaluated the 38 cases, however, they found three quarters of the patients were eligible for multimodal therapy. This approach combines tumor-removing surgery with chemotherapy and other cancer treatments, and it provides the best hope of helping mesothelioma patients live longer.

Additionally, the Boston specialists discovered four of the veterans were misdiagnosed and actually had a benign pleural disease or a form of lung cancer, which requires a different treatment strategy.

Mesothelioma Specialists Within the VA System

As the Boston VA study illustrates, many mesothelioma patients have to travel across multiple state lines to see a doctor familiar with their disease.

The good news for veterans is while they may have to go out of state, they don’t necessarily have to go out of network.

Certain VA treatment centers have the resources to serve patients with mesothelioma as part of the standard health care benefits for veterans.

Bruce W. Carter VA Medical Center

This hospital near Miami, Florida, provides a comprehensive array of health care services, and mesothelioma patients who travel there can benefit from the surgical expertise of Dr. Dao Nguyen. In addition to his work at the VA, Nguyen is affiliated with the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, one of the nation’s leading institutions for mesothelioma treatment and research.

West Los Angeles VA Medical Center

Part of the largest VA health care system in the U.S., this hospital rivals many of the nation’s top private institutions in terms of excellence in mesothelioma treatment. The hospital’s leadership includes Dr. Robert Cameron, who is also the director of UCLA’s Comprehensive Mesothelioma Program and senior medical adviser for the Pacific Mesothelioma Center.

VA Boston Healthcare System

In addition to the International Mesothelioma Program, this health care system’s partners include Harvard Medical School and the Boston University School of Medicine. Dr. Abraham Lebenthal — a respected thoracic surgeon and former military man himself — has a special interest in making sure veterans with mesothelioma have access to world-class treatment in Boston.

How to Afford Traveling for Treatment

At this point you may be thinking: “It’s great these medical centers are out there, but how am I supposed to afford getting treatment a thousand miles from where I live?”

Fortunately, there’s a system in place to answer this question. When veterans cannot get the treatment they need locally, their medical center can arrange for them to travel anywhere in the VA health care system at no extra cost to the veteran.

In many cases, caregivers and family members of veterans can also find free lodging near a major treatment center. For example, military families traveling to the VA Boston Healthcare System can take up temporary residence at the Fisher House or the Huntington House.

The Boston VA also has a telephone triage system designed to expedite second opinions and travel arrangements for veterans with mesothelioma, no matter where in the country they live.

How to Afford Private Treatment Closer to Home

Veterans who prefer to seek treatment outside the VA system have a financial resource available to them in the Veterans Choice Program. In cases where veterans cannot easily seek treatment for a service-connected disability within the VA network, the funding available in the Choice Program can pay for treatment at a private facility.

The VA recognizes mesothelioma caused by military asbestos exposure as a service-connected disability, but the process of getting all the paperwork approved can be long and complex.

Rather than wasting precious time waiting for approval to begin cancer treatment, veterans also have the option to start treatment first, file an asbestos VA claim and then have their service-connected medical expenses reimbursed.


Former U.S. Army Capt. Aaron Munz is the director of the Veterans Department at The Mesothelioma Center, and he is a VA-accredited Claims Agent. He received the Bronze Star in 2004 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Munz has intimate knowledge of how veterans were exposed to asbestos because he served under similar conditions. Read More

Sources
  1. Siegert, C. et al. (2016, August 19). Open access phone triage for veterans with suspected malignant pleural mesothelioma. Received from Retrieved from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022480416302992

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