Wounded vets look to Congress to override ban on VA fertility help

Air Force veteran Sean Halsted sustained a spinal cord injury when he fell 40 feet during training. Paralyzed from the waist down, Halsted turned to the VA for in-vitro fertilization treatments in hopes of having children, but was refused. He and his wife, Sarah, used their own money for the procedures and now have three children.
Air Force veteran Sean Halsted sustained a spinal cord injury when he fell 40 feet during training. Paralyzed from the waist down, Halsted turned to the VA for in-vitro fertilization treatments in hopes of having children, but was refused. He and his wife, Sarah, used their own money for the procedures and now have three children. Spokesman Review

Sean Halsted of Idaho could no longer have intercourse after he fell 40 feet from a helicopter during a training exercise in Florida, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.

Kevin Jaye of Maryland lost his left testicle and part of his right leg when he stepped on a bomb in Afghanistan.

Tyler Wilson of Colorado landed in a wheelchair after he was hit by a bullet in Afghanistan.

With their sex organs damaged or destroyed, all three men could no longer father children naturally, and they were shocked when the Department of Veterans Affairs refused to pay for in-vitro fertilization treatments to help them start families.

“My legs don’t work, so I get a wheelchair – this is just the same sort of thing,” said Halsted, 45, a former Washington state service member from Gig Harbor who now lives in Rathdrum, Idaho. “The logic makes sense to me: The VA takes care of us, so that means everything.”

On Capitol Hill, the disabled vets have found an ally in Washington state Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, who wants to scrap a federal law that prohibits the VA from paying for IVF treatments.

Congress approved the ban in 1992, responding to concerns that assisted reproduction would result in the destruction of some fertilized embryos.

Critics say the law is outdated. And while a single IVF treatment can cost $12,000 or more, experts say it’s the best option for those with severe genital or spinal cord injuries to have biological children.

“It’s a cost of war,” Murray said in an interview. “When you talk to these young couples, their lives become complete when they have kids. And our country should not deny them that.”

After fighting to get Congress to approve coverage for the past five years, Murray scored an initial win last month when the Senate voted to spend $88 million over the next two years to pay for fertility treatments, a move that could aid thousands of wounded veterans.

“We know that thousands of service members have these injuries. We do not know how many would take advantage of the service itself,” said Murray, the former chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

Murray’s bill would not end the ban but it would allow the VA to pay for IVF services for a two-year period. While she’d proposed getting rid of the law in previous years, she got the Senate to go along this year by attaching the funding provision to a VA appropriations bill.

After some Republicans feared the Senate plan would be too costly in the long run, Florida Republican Rep. Jeff Miller offered a more limited plan to provide $20,000 payments to veterans with wounded reproductive organs. Veterans could spend the money at their discretion, even using it for adoption fees or other personal expenses.

“No matter how each affected veteran might utilize this benefit, one thing is clear: They earned it,” Miller, the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said in April when he introduced the bill.

Murray hopes to prevail when the battle soon moves to a House-Senate conference committee. She said the House bill to offer a capped amount of compensation would be a move in the wrong direction.

“We don’t do that if you lose a leg or an arm or have a serious injury,” Murray said. “We don’t compensate by body part.”

Murray said the federal government had created “a two-tier system that cannot be tolerated,” with the Pentagon paying for IVF treatments for active military members and their spouses while the VA rejects veterans who need the same help.

Halsted, the former Air Force member from Idaho, said he had no sexual function after his accident in 1998, which came only a year after he got married to his wife, Sarah.

“That’s a big deal, especially as a newlywed,” he said. “These are issues that when you’re in the hospital don’t seem all that important, but once you leave the hospital it’s a pretty big deal. You’re trying to feel normal, and here’s another big slap in the face that no, you’re not.”

After getting turned down by the VA, Halsted said, he and his wife spent $20,000 for IVF treatments.

The Halsteds now have three children: 12-year-old twins and a 6-year-old. While Halsted feels blessed to be a dad and said “it makes all the difference in the world,” he added that he and his wife should not have had to foot the bill on their own.

“We give the guys who are amputees $40,000 or $50,000 or even up to $80,000 legs and even multiple sets, and we’re OK with giving them those,” he said. “This is putting us back into life, into a normal life that was taken away.”

Jaye, who lives in Hagerstown, Maryland, spent more than two years at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, after he was wounded in 2012, undergoing 30 surgeries to repair his body.

He and his wife, Lauren, who got married last year, are now expecting their first child. Jaye said he was ready to paint the bedroom, counting down the days until Aug. 12, when their daughter, Claire Elizabeth, is due to arrive.

Jaye estimated the cost of the couple’s IVF treatment at $30,000 but said it was covered by his wife’s insurance after he got turned down by the VA. He said there was no question that the government should have covered the cost. “Everything else is covered,” Jaye said

“We went to war with the sole promise that if we were injured and came back, the country would put us back together again,” he said. “There’s technology available that can allow my wife and I to have our own kids and have that same exact dream that everybody else strives for: to have their white picket fence, their two to three kids, dog, beautiful house, everything, and that’s just what we’re striving to achieve here.”

Crystal Black, 32, of Denver, who’s planning to marry Tyler Wilson on July 1, said they had already started IVF treatments and expected to spend $40,000. After getting rejected by the VA, she said, the couple has already spent $14,000 and received donations from family members and friends.

“It’s the path we’ve chosen to take because we do so desperately want a child of our own, but it still sucks that because he was shot is the only reason that we have to do this,” Black said. “The only thing we’re missing is the family.”

Murray is counting on the power of the vets’ personal stories in selling her idea to Congress.

In 2012, she took Tracy Keil of Parker, Colorado, to Capitol Hill to tell the story of how her husband, Matt, and she had used their savings to pay for IVF after he had been shot in the neck in Iraq five years earlier.

“They tell it better than anybody,” Murray said. “These are serious injuries that in the past you wouldn’t recover from.”

Still, it has been a hard sell for Murray, who nevertheless vows to persist.

Last year, she pulled her bill at the last minute when some Republicans threatened to add an amendment that would have barred the VA from working with Planned Parenthood groups that provide fertility services.

After getting her plan approved by the Senate this year, she said she’d be on guard for any move to strip the measure “in the dead of night” when the House-Senate conferees began meeting.

“I want the country to know this is in there, and if somebody takes it out it’s going to be visible,” Murray said.

Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-0009, @HotakainenRob