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Badly wounded veterans lobby for fertility treatment

Legislation introduced by Sen. Patty Murray would cover the costs of in vitro fertilization and other services that the federal government doesn't pay for.

December 14, 2012|By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times
  • Air Force veteran Sean Halstead is shown with his wife Sarah and two of their children at their home in Rathdrum, Idaho. Halstead sustained a spinal cord injury during training and the couple couldn't have had children without in vitro fertilization. They were shocked to learn the VA doesn't cover the procedure.
Air Force veteran Sean Halstead is shown with his wife Sarah and two of their… (Kathy Plonka / Associated…)

Army Staff Sgt. Matt Kiel was shot while on patrol in Iraq just six weeks after his wedding. Doctors said he would be on a ventilator for the rest of his life and would never again move his arms or legs — dashing his hopes of raising a family.

But within months of his injuries five years ago, Kiel was breathing on his own and had regained enough function in his left arm to operate a motorized wheelchair. Doctors said he and his wife, Tracy, could start a family through in vitro fertilization.

The couple were overjoyed, until they discovered that the Department of Veterans Affairs does not cover the costly procedure.

"The war takes away so many things from us," Matt Kiel said. "I don't think it should take away our ability to have a family."

Kiel, 31, of Parker, Colo., is among a growing population of veterans whose war wounds make it difficult for them to have children. Advances in battlefield medicine mean troops are surviving catastrophic wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan that might have killed their predecessors in earlier wars. The use of homemade bombs to target foot patrols has left them particularly vulnerable to injuries that can damage their reproductive systems.

More than 1,900 service members have suffered such injuries since 2003, according to Pentagon data provided to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray ( D-Wash.). Most are men, but they include a growing number of women. Many could benefit from in vitro fertilization, which is why Murray is pushing for the VA to cover the procedure.

"Providing this service is a cost of war," Murray said. "There is absolutely no reason we should make these veterans, who have sacrificed so much, wait any longer to be able to realize their dreams of starting or growing their families."

The VA does cover fertility counseling, diagnostic tests and some procedures for veterans with service-connected injuries. For men, that can include the retrieval of sperm, and for women, intrauterine insemination, in which semen is inserted into the uterine cavity through a catheter. Those treatments do help some veterans conceive, although the VA generally won't cover the care provided to veterans' spouses or surrogates.

But for the most severely wounded, more advanced treatments are needed, said Dr. Lori Marshall, medical director at Seattle-based Pacific Northwest Fertility and IVF Specialists. The sperm retrieved from injured men may be of too poor quality for successful intrauterine insemination.

In IVF, egg and sperm are combined in a laboratory, and the resulting embryo is transferred into a woman's uterus. The procedure bypasses the fallopian tubes and is the treatment of choice for many women with badly damaged or missing tubes, Marshall said. If the uterus is incapable of sustaining a pregnancy, the woman may need a surrogate.

"Most of the men and women who suffer these injuries are young and should have very high success rates," Marshall said. But the cost can be prohibitive. A complete cycle of IVF typically costs between $12,000 and $20,000, and it can take several attempts to achieve a successful pregnancy.

Murray, chairwoman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, introduced legislation that passed the Senate by unanimous consent Thursday directing the VA to make advanced fertility techniques like IVF available to disabled veterans, their spouses or surrogates. But prospects for similar legislation are uncertain in the House, where spending cuts to avoid the fiscal cliff are dominating discussion.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost of providing the services at $568 million over five years. Murray proposes paying for it with savings from the drawdown of troops in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The VA has not taken a position on the bill. Department spokesman Mark Ballesteros said officials are "carefully considering" the needs of a new generation of patients with new traumas. "VA's goal is to restore veterans' physical and mental capabilities to the greatest extent possible," he said.

Monique, a Southern California veteran who did not want her full name published, is among the veterans hoping for a swift resolution. She is wondering whether she should shelve plans for a beach wedding in Marina del Rey in favor of an inexpensive ceremony at a government office — because the price tag for her dream wedding is $11,000, nearly what it would cost for a cycle of IVF.

Doctors say her fallopian tubes are too damaged from the injuries she sustained in a 2005 ambush in Iraq to conceive naturally. Surgery won't help. Her best chance is IVF.

Monique never thought she would get married. "Now that I am.... I want the big fluffy dress," she said.

But she said she won't feel whole again if she can't have a baby. "I'm a woman," she said. "I should be able to do this."

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