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Wounded vets can’t get help with in vitro fertilization costs

January 4, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
U.S. military veterans who are having trouble starting families due to combat injuries do not get financial assistance from the V.A. for in vitro fertilization, leaving couples to pay for the costly treatments themselves. Efforts made in Congress to change that rule have been blocked. William Brangham reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For thousands of young veterans in America, putting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq behind them remains a constant challenge. For some, starting a family is an important part of the healing process.

But, as the NewsHour’s William Brangham reports, even that can be a struggle.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All newlyweds face challenges, but Jason and Rachel Hallett have more challenges than most. Jason is a triple amputee. Back in 2010, at age 19, this young Marine lost two legs and an arm when he stepped on an IED while on patrol in Afghanistan.

FORMER CPL. JASON HALLETT, U.S. Marine Corps: When 9/11 and everything happened, I was — I had a little bit of interest to join the military. But, as soon as that happened, it just became — everything was circling around me joining the military.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: After his injury, barely clinging to life, and riddled with infections, Jason was cared for at U.S. military facilities in Germany, Maryland and California.

He hadn’t been in touch with Rachel since they dated back in eighth grade. But, in the hospital, he found her again on Facebook.

RACHEL HALLETT, Jason’s Wife: He sends me this friend request a couple years after I had kind of given up. And when I saw what had happened, I just started crying. He hadn’t posted, like, what happened. But he had, like — his picture obviously was different than last time I remembered him, and said that he worked for the Marine Corps, so I kind of put two pieces together.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Facebook led to phone calls, which led to a visit, and then a wedding day. They now live in Windsor, Colorado. Jason’s studying to be a certified financial planner. Rachel baby-sits to make extra money, but her full-time job now really is caring for Jason, and she gets a small stipend from the VA for that work.

What the Halletts want most is to start a family. But there’s a problem.

RACHEL HALLETT: We had just kind of been told that it would probably be a problem because of some of his injuries and where his shrapnel is. There’s tons of shrapnel everywhere throughout his body.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Still in your body today?

CPL. JASON HALLETT: Yes. So, basically, one of the pieces had actually connected itself to one of my testicles. And so I now have to take testosterone injections basically to get me back to normal. And with that, one of the side effects is, it basically kills the sperm off.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In order to conceive a child, the Halletts have to go through lengthy in vitro fertilization treatments. In vitro is an expensive process. It typically costs about $12,000 to $13,000 per try, and the first try often doesn’t work, nor does the second.

So the bills can stack up. But, unlike all the other medical treatment related to Jason’s injuries, the VA doesn’t cover IVF treatment for wounded vets, and so the young couple are paying for this themselves.

Congress passed a law in 1992 that led to the Veterans Administration banning coverage of any in vitro fertilization services. That means that for an estimated 1,800 veterans like Jason, they will also have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to get pregnant and start a family.

Sen. Patty Murray wants that to change. This Democrat from Washington state sits on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and she wrote a bill that would lift the VA’s IVF ban. But for six years, her efforts have been blocked.

SEN. PATTY MURRAY, D-Wash.: To me, when someone goes off to fight a war for us, a man or a woman, we have an obligation as the country to make them whole again, as whole as we can. And, certainly, having a family, having children, having that kind of quality of life that a lot of Americans want is something that we should make sure they get.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Why is it that the VA doesn’t pay for these services now?

SEN. PATTY MURRAY: I have been told that it is because of the cost. I believe that that shouldn’t be an issue. This is something that is a cost of war and that, as Americans, we should do what we can for the people who served our country. So, the stated reason is money, but I’m skeptical.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: What do you think the issue it really is?

SEN. PATTY MURRAY: It is hard to get anyone to say anything past cost. I would say to them, let’s get over the cost. If there’s another issue, tell us what it is.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, what is the cost? One estimate says covering IVF and other fertility treatments for veterans for five years would be $578 million. Some IVF advocates say that estimate is inflated.

We reached out to the two Republicans who run the Veterans Affairs Committees in the House and the Senate. Neither would speak with us. Republican Congressman Jeff Miller from Florida, chairman of the House VA Committee, gave us a statement saying he was trying to balance the needs of veterans with the concerns over IVF.

Several sources told the NewsHour that these concerns over IVF apparently come from pro-life organizations who object to the treatments. These groups argue that, because some of the embryos created or stored during IVF sometimes get destroyed, IVF is then similar to abortion. We reached out to the main pro-life groups to talk about their concerns, but they all declined our requests.

SEN. PATTY MURRAY: What I would answer to that is that this is a decision each one of these men and woman have to make on their own. And if they decide this is the way that they can have a family and become whole again, that decision should be up to them.

But our country shouldn’t be deciding for one philosophy, if it’s a religious philosophy, a ban on all Americans who served our country in having the ability to have a child.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It appears unlikely Congress will change the VA’s policy before the next election. But for young veterans and their families who struggle to afford IVF, time is very short.

DR. GILBERT MOTTLA, Shady Grove Fertility: We’re really talking about some 1,800 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who are now aging. This one group of war injured, we really need to move this legislation forward and get these individuals the coverage they need before they lose their own reproductive potential.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Dr. Gilbert Mottla is a fertility doctor in Maryland who works with military families. He’s pushing the VA to change its policy, which he says is driven in part by misconceptions about IVF, like the concern that IVF causes multiple pregnancies at once, leading to selective abortions.

DR. GILBERT MOTTLA: I think it really is a misunderstanding of what the procedure is about. And it generates — goes back to the early ’90s, when in vitro was very, very new. This is a 34-year-old procedure now that has come of age tactically.

And back in the early ’90s, when Congress was looking at this, it was a new procedure, not very successful, fraught with some problems of multiple pregnancy, which really are over in many ways.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: There’s no sign Jason Hallett is at all frustrated with the injuries he’s suffered and what they have done to his life, but the same isn’t true for the way he feels about Congress.

What do you think about the people who have been holding this piece of legislation up?

CPL. JASON HALLETT: It’s very angering. And it brings a lot of resentment towards my active service and stuff. I don’t regret joining the Marine Corps. But the simple fact is that they told us that we’d be taken care of us if we got injured.

And I guarantee that, if it was a congressman’s kid or them themselves that wanted IVF, and they had to go through the same process and the same hoops, that they would be doing everything they can to make it happen.

RACHEL HALLETT: It’s hard to know that he would protect them and he would give up all of this for them, and they will not take just a little bit of time to try to fix this issue that we are having.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Rachel is undergoing the first steps of her fertility treatment. If all goes well, she could be pregnant as early as February. If it doesn’t, they will probably need loans for any additional treatment.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m William Brangham in Windsor, Colorado.



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