VA drops plans to cover surgery for transgender vets

VA drops plans to cover surgery for transgender vets
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The Department of Veterans Affairs has dropped plans to start covering gender transition surgery for veterans amid concerns about costs.

The proposed rule change that would have allowed the VA to pay for such surgeries was withdrawn from the Fall 2016 Unified Agenda, a biannual publication of proposed regulation changes that was due Monday.

“VA has been and will continue to explore a regulatory change that would allow VA to perform gender alteration surgery and a change in the medical benefits package, when appropriated funding is available,” the VA said in a statement Monday.

VA officials sent a letter dated Thursday to six members of Congress informing them of the decision. The lawmakers previously wrote a letter asking the VA to “move swiftly” on lifting the ban on payment for such operations. 

News first surfaced in June that the VA was proposing a rule change to lift the long-standing ban and allow coverage of surgeries deemed medically necessary on a case-by-case basis. At the time, VA officials said the change had been in the works since 2014.

The VA already covers transition-related care for transgender vets, including hormone replacement therapy and pre- and post-surgical care.

The VA highlighted such care in its Monday statement.

“VA currently provides many services for transgender veterans to include hormone therapy, mental-health care, preoperative evaluation and long-term care following sex reassignment surgery,” it said.

But the department has been barred from covering actual reassignment surgery since 1999.

In dropping its plan for the time being, the VA did not dispute the medical necessity of surgery.

“Increased understanding of both gender dysphoria and surgical techniques in this area has improved significantly and is now widely accepted as medically necessary treatment,” the VA said.

Putting the rule change on hold puts into question when and if it will happen in the future, given that Republicans opposed to the change will control the White House and Congress come January.

In a Monday statement, a leading advocacy group for LGBT people in the military said it was disappointed in VA’s decision.

“All of our nation's veterans, regardless of their gender identity, deserve access to the medical care they earned serving our nation," Ashley Broadway-Mack, president of the American Military Partner Association, said. "This is a deeply disappointing setback in making sure an often medically necessary procedure for transgender veterans is part of that care.

“Moreover, as we face a new incoming administration, we implore fair-minded Americans to stand united in holding our new administration officials accountable by insisting this be fixed. The medical care of all our nation's heroes, including transgender veterans, must be a priority."