Taking better care of wounded vets

Senate bill would widen coverage of fertility treatment.

Posted: August 26, 2012

WASHINGTON - The roadside bomb that exploded outside Andrew Robinson's humvee in Iraq six years ago broke the Marine staff sergeant's neck and left him without use of his legs. It also cast doubt on his ability to father a child, a gnawing emotional wound for a then-23-year-old who had planned to start a family with his wife of less than two years.

The catastrophic spinal cord injury meant the couple's best hope for children was in vitro fertilization, an expensive and time-consuming medical procedure whose cost isn't covered by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Robinsons paid out of pocket.

A bill being considered in the Senate would expand the VA's medical benefits package so other veterans, and their spouses or surrogates, don't have to bear the same expense. The department currently covers a range of medical treatment for veterans, including some infertility care, but the legislation specifically authorizes the VA to cover IVF and to pay for procedures now provided for some critically injured active-duty soldiers.

The bill is meant to help wounded veterans start families as they return home from war and to address a harrowing consequence of combat that can radically change a couple's marriage but receives less attention than post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries.

"It's common sense: a male veteran cannot have a kid by himself," said Robinson, of Florence, N.J., who is now 29 and was injured in a 2006 explosion in Al Anbar province.

In vitro fertilization, the process of mixing sperm and eggs in a laboratory dish and transferring the resulting embryo into a woman's uterus, costs thousands of dollars, and each cycle can take weeks. It's physically taxing too, requiring hormone injections and other invasive steps, and can take multiple tries to produce a viable pregnancy. For many wounded veterans, it represents the most promising option.

More than 1,830 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered pelvic fractures and genitourinary injuries since 2003 that could affect their ability to reproduce, according to Pentagon figures provided to Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.), the bill's sponsor and chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

"Because they served our country, they now can't have a family, which is part of their dream," said Murray, who hopes the committee will act on the bill after returning from August recess.

The legislation would likely have helped spouses like 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.

The proposal comes as technological improvements have made IVF a more common - and reliably successful - way to have children, with the number of births as a result of it and similar procedures rising in the past decade. The VA is becoming more sensitive to family health concerns as it encounters younger veterans trying to start post-war lives, said Patty Hayes, the agency's chief consultant for women's veterans' health.

The VA says it covers some fertility services, including counseling, diagnostic tests and intrauterine insemination - a method of artificial insemination - for the veteran. But that leaves out many veterans and their spouses whose best hope for pregnancy is the more physically rigorous, but also more reliable, IVF process, where the average cycle costs $12,400, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.

Robinson, the Marine who suffered the broken neck, and his wife spent $6,000 of their own money on IVF and got pregnant on the first try. They now have 8-month-old twins Collin and Leah.

"Everyone deserves to have a chance at a family," he said.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|