Veterans who are eligible for treatment through the VA usually stay clear of the VA healthcare system when considering treatment for their mesothelioma. However, they should know that two of the best mesothelioma surgeons in the country have started mesothelioma treatment programs at their respective VA Hospitals. Thus, veterans who have no choice but to seek treatment through the VA, can obtain treatment from one of the best civilian mesothelioma doctors in the country.
Using VA Healthcare for Mesothelioma Treatment
Veterans suffering from mesothelioma can use the VA healthcare program in order to get their medical needs met. The program was set up for veterans to get quality, affordable healthcare. However, not all veterans are immediately enrolled into the VA healthcare program upon discharge from the military. They must apply for enrollment and as of 2003, they must meet certain criteria to qualify.
Although former service members are at a higher risk of developing mesothelioma than the general population, the VA Healthcare system only has two mesothelioma doctors—Dr. Abraham Lebenthal in Boston and Dr. Robert Cameron in Los Angeles, who are both well versed in treating pleural mesothelioma.
Veterans already enrolled in VA Healthcare can see either doctor without having to pay any more for treatment than they would at their local VA Hospital. Therefore, veterans with no copays when being treated at their local VA Hospital, have no copays when traveling to see either of the VA’s specialists. And, if veterans suffering from mesothelioma can get a referral from their local VA Hospital to see one of these specialists, the VA will also pay the veteran’s travel expenses to see that doctor.
In 2003, the eligibility rules were changed, and the number of veterans who could be enrolled in the VA healthcare program became dependent on the amount of money Congress provided the program each year. Vets already in the program prior to 2003 were grandfathered in.
Today, a veteran must meet VA healthcare eligibility requirements in order to get their medical treatment covered by the VA. After applying for enrollment in the program, eligible veterans are placed within Priority Groups 1-8, with those in group 1 receiving the highest priority for medical care. Veterans in receipt of VA disability for mesothelioma are usually placed in priority group 1, as this group is for veterans with a 50% disability rating or higher.
The Choice Program
Veterans enrolled in the VA healthcare program are eligible for the Choice Program, which allows veterans to receive care from non-VA facilities. Veterans can receive mesothelioma care from non-VA facilities if they have been waiting for longer than 30 days for VA medical care or if they live 40 miles or more from a VA medical facility.
As long as the treatment received at a non-VA facility is related to a veteran’s VA-approved health needs, their treatment costs will be covered. For mesothelioma patients, that typically means being covered at 100 percent of treatment costs. If the veteran faces an excessive travel burden, such as geographic challenges, environmental factors, or a medical condition, the VA may also cover travel costs.
VA Mesothelioma Programs
If a veteran receives a referral from their local VA physician to see Dr. Lebenthal or Dr. Cameron, the VA will cover travel costs—though such a referral is generally difficult to obtain. Typically, if the local VA Hospital does not have an oncologist or thoracic surgeon, they will refer the veteran to a civilian doctor for treatment, and pay for that treatment through that civilian doctor.
There are few mesothelioma specialists in the country, so most veterans end up getting referred to a civilian doctor with little to no experience in treating mesothelioma.
Dr. Cameron and Dr. Lebenthal are among the most well-known mesothelioma doctors in the country; being the only mesothelioma doctors in the VA, they are highly sought after. Therefore, a veteran already in the VA healthcare system can seek treatment from either doctor at that doctor’s VA Hospital without the need for a referral.
However, a referral to one of these doctors from the veteran’s local VA physician means the VA will also pay the expenses associated with traveling to Boston or Los Angeles.
Los Angeles: Dr. Robert Cameron
Dr. Robert Cameron is the director of the Comprehensive Mesothelioma Program at UCLA, and also the head of thoracic surgery at the West Los Angeles Medical Center, a facility in the VA healthcare system. Dr. Cameron advocates against the industry standard of removing the entire lung to treat pleural mesothelioma, a procedure known as an extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP). Instead, he prefers to remove the pleural lining along with the tumors, in a lung sparing surgery he perfected.
Dr. Cameron refined the pleurectomy with decortication (P/D), a meticulous surgery used for pleural mesothelioma patients to remove the tumors and cancerous parts of the lung. This procedure has proven to be less debilitating for mesothelioma patients than the EPP, and remains an effective way to treat the disease.
He is believed to be the first surgeon to use the decortication procedure along with the pleurectomy, to remove the tumors instead of the entire lung. Dr. Cameron has performed the P/D on over 300 patients.
Boston: Dr. Abraham Lebenthal
Dr. Abraham Lebenthal is based out of Boston’s Brigham & Women’s Hospital, a facility long held as the gold standard for pleural mesothelioma treatment. He also heads the mesothelioma program at the VA Boston Healthcare System and specializes in treating pleural mesothelioma using both the EPP and the P/D procedures.
He completed a four-year clinical fellowship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and has returned to Boston after working at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia for three years.
The VA Boston Healthcare System is comprised of three different campuses—one in Jamaica Plain, one in West Roxbury, and another in Brockton. The Boston VA is well-known as a national research and development center, as well as a teaching facility for Harvard’s Medical School.
Dr. Lebenthal has a passion for treating patients with mesothelioma and believes that the VA hospital in Boston is not only the best mesothelioma facility in the VA, but one of the best in the country.