Decades after his deployment to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand in the late 1960s, Army veteran Jim Scott developed urinary symptoms that bothered him enough to go to the doctor.
“He asked for a urine sample,” Scott said. “He came back into the room and he said, ‘Guess what? You have urine in your blood. Because the little vial was full of blood instead of urine.
It was bladder cancer. More than 20 tumors required surgery and chemotherapy. Scott suspected that Agent Orange, a herbicide used by the US government in Vietnam, was to blame. So he filed a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs, which said he had insufficient evidence that his military service caused his illness.
After treatment for his cancer, Scott became involved with the Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network, sharing his story and counseling newly diagnosed patients. He also lobbied Congress to recognize the link between bladder cancer and Agent Orange so veterans could get VA disability benefits without specific proof.
It finally happened last year.
“I was thrilled,” Scott said. “It was like: Are you kidding me? ‘Breaking news! VA is extending benefits for conditions related to certain toxic exposures. That’s what I remember the most.”
Three new presumptive conditions have been added: bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and parkinsonism. The VA sends letters to eligible veterans and has pledged to review previously denied applications.
But Scott said the package of documents he received did not fully explain the process. Instead, he asked her for additional information about his service, medical conditions and beneficiaries. He ended up confused as to how the claims process will unfold.
“It’s like, ‘Okay, once I’ve filled it in, am I done?'” Scott said. “Am I waiting, or is there something else I should do?”
Veteran advocates say VA communications are often boilerplate, and veterans may struggle to apply the information to their specific issues or claims.
“It leads to a massive amount of misunderstanding and misunderstanding among veterans,” said Stacey-Rae Simcox, law professor and director of the Stetson University Veterans Advocacy Clinic. “It also means veterans running around trying to get information they don’t need to get, because the VA already has it.
Even if veterans submit all the right information, that doesn’t mean the money will start flowing anytime soon.
The VA already has more than 70,000 claims to review resulting from parkinsonism, bladder cancer and hypothyroidism. This adds to a massive, long-standing backlog of applications for other veterans and their families. From the start of the year, the VA said it had a total of more than 260,000 claims pending for more than 125 days.
While the VA has struggled with a backlog of claims for years, Secretary Denis McDonough told reporters last month that the pandemic has made the situation worse.
“We stopped, for example, providing what we call compensation and pension reviews during the pandemic,” McDonough said.
These medical exams are usually the first step after a veteran files a claim. The VA uses them to gather evidence about a veteran’s condition before making a decision on their application. McDonough said exams have resumed, but VA is still catching up.
“As part of our current plan, we are asking employees to work overtime,” he said. “We will – between these additional overtime hours, automating records, digitizing records and hiring additional people – reduce that number to less than 100,000 claims by early 2024.”
But that’s still a long time for veterans who for years have struggled with health issues and VA. Bladder cancer survivor Jim Scott worries that some of his classmates aren’t going through such a lengthy process.
“Some veterans may come in and apply and hear nothing for a long time, ignore the fact that they’re going to be considered, and not keep the application active,” he said.
Scott encourages vets to file claims, monitor them, and be proactive until they get their benefits.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.