Families ask VA to pay for in vitro

Wounded: Some veterans can’t get pregnant without it, but cost stands in way

Staff writerOctober 10, 2012 

Margeaux Kennedy didn’t see much reason for hope of achieving her dream of raising a family with her Army captain husband after he suffered a paralyzing injury in uniform.

Their Army health care plan would not cover the full cost of the most effective treatment for them – in vitro fertilization. If she and Capt. Niall Kennedy failed to conceive while he was in uniform, the Department of Veterans Affairs would not pay for in vitro fertilization.

Those virtual dead ends were another setback for family members who gave up more than most for their country when an airborne training exercise left Capt. Kennedy paralyzed a year and a half ago.

“That has shocked me as one more sacrifice that we as a childless couple are expected to make,” Kennedy, 28, said.

The Tacoma couple spoke up Tuesday with other disabled veterans in support of an effort by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to compel the Department of Veterans Affairs to offer in vitro fertilization services for former service members and their spouses.

Murray said it’s time for the VA to offer those services because of the rising number of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who have wounds to their spines, genitals and pelvic areas that cause reproductive problems.

More than 1,800 service members have suffered wounds causing fertility complications since 2003, according to Defense Department data Murray obtained.

“We have a responsibility to give them back as much as we can,” she said at a Seattle news conference.

Murray, the chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, submitted a bill in June to expand fertility services at the VA to include in vitro fertilization, care for spouses and benefits for surrogates. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, submitted a companion bill in the House.

Paralyzed male veterans might have fertility challenges for several reasons, such as erectile or ejaculatory complications.

Female veterans have different threats to their fertility, in addition to combat wounds. Fallopian tube infections, for example, could lower their chances of getting pregnant.

The lawmakers’ push to expand fertility services at home follows changes within the Defense Department that give service members more protection from buried mines in Afghanistan that can damage a soldier’s genitals.

Service members on foot patrols now wear layers of Kevlar – one an underwear-like linen that slows shrapnel and another a diaper-like shield – to protect their genitals.

Change is coming more slowly at home. The Defense Department’s health plans now offer some expanded fertility treatment plans. The Kennedys estimate that choice would still cost them $6,000 out of pocket.

The VA, likewise, has some fertility programs but does not pay for in vitro fertilization, the process of mixing sperm and an egg in a laboratory. That procedure can cost between $15,000 and $20,000.

Instead, the VA pays for counseling, testing and intrauterine insemination.

Dr. Lori Marshall of the Pacific Northwest Fertility Clinic characterized those options as less expensive but less effective than in vitro fertilization.

“The only option available to (veterans) is to undergo these unsuccessful treatments over and over again,” she said.

In vitro fertilization worked for two Washington veterans who suffered paralyzing injuries in past decades and joined the Kennedys in supporting Murray’s bill. One, Gary Pearson of Seattle, turned to in vitro with his wife 10 years after he suffered a paralyzing injury in the Coast Guard in 1973. He raised twin boys, finding ways to clean, change and corral them even though he has limited use of his hands.

Pearson inspired Sean and Sarah Halstead of Spokane to try in vitro when they met him at an athletic competition for disabled veterans. Suddenly, achieving a dream of raising a family that the Halsteads had put away after Sean suffered a paralyzing injury with the Air Force in 1998 felt possible.

Today, they have three children. Their in vitro treatments cost them more than $15,000.

“It took us five years to feel OK as a couple with a wheelchair, and then to have that hunger to have a family,” said Sarah Halstead, 41.

The Kennedys are much closer to the injury that set back their life plans.

Capt. Kennedy is assigned to the Warrior Transition Battalion at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The West Point graduate and combat veteran was injured during an exercise in North Carolina with his unit at the time, the 82nd Airborne Division.

He and Margeaux are penciling out when they should start their family. They scaled back professional goals because of new medical demands. They don’t know when they would best be able to afford the fertilization treatment that could help them raise the family they want.

Capt. Kennedy said that cost should not be a decision weighing on soldiers like him who were hurt doing what their country asked of them.

“This is about restoring the wounded warriors to their capabilities prior to their injuries as best that we as a nation thankfully are able to,” he said.

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