The Defense Department last April made IVF a covered benefit for active-duty service members who are either seriously ill or catastrophically injured, said spokeswoman Cynthia Smith. But that excludes veterans.
A bill being considered in the Senate would expand the Department of Veterans Affairs’ medical benefits package to cover IVF for injured veterans such as Robinson and their spouses or surrogates.
Since 2003, more than 1,800 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered pelvic fractures and genitourinary injuries that could affect their reproductive abilities, according to Pentagon figures provided to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).
Murray, chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, is sponsoring the bill that she hopes the committee will pass after returning from August recess.
“Because they served our country, they now can’t have a family, which is part of their dream,” Murray said. “I think we now have a responsibility to not take that dream away.”
Combat injuries can affect a soldier’s ability to reproduce in any number of ways, said Mark Edney, a Maryland urologist and Army reservist who treats veterans. For men, a blast to the genitalia can harm sperm-producing testicles, while a spinal cord injury can cause erectile dysfunction or ejaculatory problems. For women, shrapnel can injure the pelvis and fallopian tubes, preventing fertilization.
Though expertise exists to help them become parents, Edney said veterans with fertility problems form a “relatively small subset of patients that are just forgotten in terms of policy.”
The legislation being introduced would likely have helped spouses such as Brenda Isaacson, who said the VA’s insurance plan covered the cost of recovering sperm from her husband, Chuck — an Army staff sergeant paralyzed by a 2007 helicopter crash in Afghanistan — but not the more than half-dozen IVF attempts the couple underwent before finally having a daughter nearly a year and a half ago. She bristled at being told by officials that infertility services were not medically or psychologically necessary.
“You tell that to a man who’s just been wounded — that it’s not psychologically necessary to have children — when that’s all we’d talked about, having babies,” she said.
“There’s a lot more veterans who need this,” said Patty Hayes, the VA’s chief consultant for women veterans’ health. She said that the VA is looking closely at the proposal, and has become more sensitive to family health concerns as it encounters younger veterans trying to start postwar lives.
Infertility can be especially vexing for military couples coping with life after a catastrophic injury and trying to establish a new normal, said Barbara Cohoon, deputy director of government relations for the National Military Family Association, a nonprofit advocacy group.
“When someone has an injury and they’re paralyzed from the waist down, being able to reconnect emotionally and physically as a couple is part of the therapy,” she said.
Robinson, the now-29-year-old Marine who suffered the broken neck, said he and his wife had always talked about having children. They tried artificial insemination, which didn’t work because of poor sperm quality resulting from his injury.
With the help of a doctor’s discount and drugs donated by other patients, Robinson and his wife paid $6,000 of their own for IVF. Robinson’s wife became pregnant on the first try, and the couple now have 8-month-old twins, Collin and Leah.
“Everyone deserves to have a chance at a family. We were able to save the money and stuff like that. But maybe for someone who isn’t able to do that, I would hate to see that they don’t have that option,” he said.
Tracy Keil used IVF to conceive her twins after her husband, Matt, was shot in the neck and paralyzed in Iraq in 2007, six weeks after they wed. The couple were able to save the thousands of dollars needed for treatment because they live mortgage-free in a custom-made home designed by a nonprofit group that builds houses for disabled veterans and their families. She has since become an advocate for the legislation, testifying on it this summer before a Senate committee.
“I agree with the fact that they had other hurdles to get over first, especially with PTSD and suicide and traumatic brain injury. They had other things that were just plain more important,” Keil said. “But now we’re at the point where those programs are in place, and it’s time to address this issue.”
— Associated Press