Even after a number of scientific and policy breakthroughs in recent years, available infertility services for veterans remain confusing and burdensome even for individuals whose combat injuries prevent other options for starting a family, advocates warned on Tuesday.
“Veterans should not have to risk future financial stability to have a family,” said Maureen Elias, associate legislative director of government relations for Paralyzed Veterans of America. “It is our responsibility to ensure the men and women who experience infertility due to injuries or illness incurred in service to this country can have families of their own.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs began providing in vitro fertilization services for veterans only four years ago, and with significant restrictions. Currently, the treatments — which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars — are open only to married opposite-sex couples who use their own sperm, eggs and uterus.
“That’s a pretty narrow population that doesn’t reflect the world we live in today,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee’s panel on veterans issues.
“Many veterans have injuries or illnesses that prevent them from being able to use their own sperm to conceive or to be able to carry a pregnancy to term on their own. Same-sex couples are denied treatment, even if they have service-connected infertility … There is no reason why there should be this kind of limitation on a veteran’s ability to start a family.”
In addition, funding for those procedures are not permanent fixtures in VA’s annual budget. Instead, lawmakers must re-authorize the money every few years, a financial uncertainty that some advocates say adds extra stress to an already emotional process.
Appropriations committee lawmakers held their hearing on the program problems Tuesday in advance of Veterans Affairs budget planning later this spring. Along with stabilizing the funding — a move that most lawmakers appeared to support — the panel is considering a host of other requirement changes to broaden the services.
Advocates argued they are sorely needed.
“VA is a health system for all kinds of individuals, men and women, and they treat the whole body,” said Barbara Collura, president of RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association.
“If you get pregnant, VA is going to help cover your pregnancy and help you with that delivery. Infertility is affecting one out of eight people of reproductive age. So there is a high likelihood that there are a lot of individuals within the VA health system that have infertility issues … and we like to see those issues taken care of.”
VA leaders were not part of Tuesday’s event, but are expected to face questions on the issue in upcoming hearings. Department officials said they are studying issues surrounding barriers to infertility treatment, but cannot loosen restrictions or broaden enrollment rules without congressional action.
Tuesday’s hearing focused largely on VA services, and not programs run by the Defense Department. The two separate systems do share some funding and logistical links. Advocates argued they should be completely separated in order to ensure fairness in how all veterans can access the services.
Elias said that in many cases today, veterans are already undergoing IVF treatments, just at their own cost.
“The sad reality is when veterans are turned away from VA for infertility services, the biggest option that we’ve seen used is GoFundMe,” she said. “Veterans who have lost their inability to have a child due to a service-connected condition should not have to turn to the goodwill of the general population in order to fund their family.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.