View Full Version : Benefits for vets: Many don't seem to know they've earned health care assistance

07-06-05, 07:31 AM
Benefits for vets: Many don't seem to know they've earned health care assistance
By BETHANY CARSON - H&R Staff Writer

DECATUR - Craig Hanks turned 18 the first day of basic training.

As a Navy hospital corpsman, he accompanied the Marines to South Vietnam and was based on a river patrol boat on the Saigon. He was unknowingly exposed to Agent Orange, a combination of herbicides used to kill vegetation where enemies could hide.

"I didn't have a clue," he said. "I don't think any of us did."

The Decatur man didn't find out about the health effects until he retired about three decades later. Two years ago, he had a doctor's visit for kidney stones. A blood test revealed he had elevated levels of a prostate-specific antigen, a sign of his slowly growing prostate cancer.

Prostate cancer is one of a dozen diseases linked to Agent Orange exposure, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Hanks told Richard Scales, a Vietnam veteran in the Army and past commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 99 in Decatur. Scales advised him to file for disability benefit.

"When we came home from Vietnam, we weren't told about what was offered to us as veterans," Scales said. "They didn't stand there at the airport and say, come on over here, let's talk about it."

He added, "There are not only Vietnam veterans but World War II and Korean veterans who don't think they have any benefits."

He advised veterans to find their discharge papers, go to the Decatur Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic at 3035 E. Mound Road and request an exam for hepatitis C and an Agent Orange exam. "It's free," he said. "This Decatur outpatient clinic is one of the best deals around."

He also recommended veterans look into filling drug prescriptions through the VA. "They'll be surprised - they can cut their medical costs down to dollars instead of hundreds of dollars."

Hanks said because of Scales, he received $2,400 a month for disability benefits from the VA for about a year after his surgery.

Although he had spent 24 years working in the VA Great Lakes Health Care System in Northern Illinois, he said he didn't access the VA benefit earlier because he didn't believe he was eligible.

"I never knew that I was eligible because I thought it was for the guys with the most severe exposure," he said. "I didn't know the base that I was on had been defoliated with dioxins."

The Agent Orange test consists of a complete physical exam and completing a questionnaire on military service and herbicide exposure, according to a Danville VA physician.

"We look at the skin; we look at cardiovascular; we look at GI tract; we look for lymph node enlargement, any number of physical signs that can lead us toward disease," said Dr. Uma Sekar, associate chief of staff for Ambulatory Care Services for VA Illiana Health Care Systems.

Other diseases linked to Agent Orange exposure include chronic lymphatic leukemia, chloracne (a skin condition), diabetes, Hodgkin's disease, multiple myeloma (bone marrow cancer), non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (cancer of the lymph nodes), peripheral neuropathy, porphyria cutanea tarda (liver disease), respiratory cancers, soft tissue sarcoma (cancer of the soft tissue) and spina bifida (a birth defect of the spine).

According to the federal government, in 2003, nearly 172,000 people received health care and nearly 84,500 veterans received disability compensation or pension payments from Illinois VA.

Yet, the Illinois VA said more than $400 million exists in unclaimed federal benefits belonging to Illinois veterans.

"There are lots of people who feel they don't want to bother the government unless they need the service," Sekar said. Or, they have other means of insurance.

Others, like Hanks, don't know they're eligible, said Kathie Powless, assistant superintendent of the Veterans Assistance Commission of Macon County. She said eligibility is determined by income and length of service, not whether the veterans served during peacetime or wartime or whether they were injured.

Another possible reason, Powless added, is if they don't ask, they won't receive.

For veterans who don't know how or don't want to fill out the potentially confusing paperwork, Powless said that's what she's there for. "Don't worry about it. Bring it up, and let me do it for you. I know what's going on with it."

She said others don't want to accept VA benefits because they perceive it as welfare. "It's not," she said.

Hanks said the ongoing joke among the VA still rings true today. "The VA is the best-kept secret in the country," he said.

The federal government is considering legislation that would enhance efforts to identify veterans who aren't accessing disability and other benefits due to them. Last week, the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs adopted an amendment to add $1.5 billion to the 2005 budget for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Bethany Carson can be reached at bcarson@;herald-review.com or 421-6968.

For more information

For more information about Veterans Affairs health benefits, visit the Veterans Assistance Commission of Macon County, 141 S. Main St., or call 424-1376.

The Decatur VA Outpatient Clinic is at 3035 E. Mound Road. Call 875-2670, or call the Danville office of the VA Illiana Health Care Systems at 1-800-320-8387.

Tracking the news:

Vets benefits

The latest: U.S. Rep. Lane Evans, D-Ill., of Rock Island will visit Decatur at 9 a.m. Friday, July 8, to talk about the problems and solutions of fully funding veterans' health care. He will speak in the fifth-floor board room of the Macon County Office Building, 141 S. Main St.

What's next: A Supermarket of Veterans Benefits Day will be from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, July 9, at Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand Ave., Chicago. For more information, visit www.veteransbenefits.

us or call 1-800-437-9824.