Veterans Affairs officials for the first time will offer surgeries for transgender veterans seeking to alter their physical attributes, Secretary Denis McDonough will announce on Saturday.
The move follows repeated promises by VA officials to make the department “more welcoming” to all veterans and was accompanied by an announcement that the Veterans Health Administration will rename its LGBT health program to the LGBTQ+ program to “reflect new community standards of inclusiveness and anticipate future changes in terms.”
“[This is ] allowing transgender vets to go through the full gender confirmation process with VA by their side,” McDonough said prepared remarks for an event at the Orlando VA Healthcare System in Florida. “We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do, but because they can save lives.”
The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates there are more than 134,000 transgender veterans in America today, and another 15,000 transgender individuals serving in the armed forces.
VA officials estimate that around 4,000 veterans nationwide will be interested in the surgeries. Total cost of the program is not yet known. The department also could not say when surgeries will be available, since officials must first go through a formal rule change process.
McDonough said making the change “will require changing VA’s regulations and establishing policy that will ensure the equitable treatment and safety” of transgender veterans.
“There are several steps to take, which will take time. But we are moving ahead, methodically, because we want this important change in policy to be implemented in a manner that has been thoroughly considered to ensure that the services made available to veterans meet VA’s rigorous standards for quality health care.”
The announcement on gender confirmation surgeries, also known as gender reassignment surgeries, is a dramatic shift from the previous White House and President Donald Trump’s moves to ban transgender individuals from joining the military and limit surgery options for those already in the ranks. Trump cited cost and morale concerns for that opposition.
McDonough, in his remarks, called it a matter of finding the best ways to serve veterans’ needs.
“LGBTQ+ veterans experience mental illness and suicidal thoughts at far higher rates than those outside their community,” he said. “But they are significantly less likely to seek routine care, largely because they fear discrimination.
“At VA, we’re doing everything in our power to show veterans of all sexual orientations and gender identities that they can talk openly, honestly and comfortably with their health care providers about any issues they may be experiencing.”
Since 2016, all VA facilities have had a local LGBT Veteran Care Coordinator responsible for helping those veterans connect to available services.
In a statement, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif. and the first openly gay minority individual elected to Congress, hailed the move.
“Veterans in need of gender confirmation surgery should not have to seek healthcare outside of the VA health system or navigate complicated processes to get the care they need,” he said. “VA must be inclusive of all veterans who have served, regardless of their identity.”
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., similarly praised the expansion of health care offerings for transgender veterans.
“Every service member and veteran deserves equal access to quality care from VA, and this includes our LGBTQ+ veterans,” he said in a statement. “We must reaffirm our commitment to making VA a more welcoming place for everyone who fought to protect our freedoms.”
But House Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Mike Bost, R-Ill., blasted the announcement as the White House trying to win “the culture wars.”
“This announcement clearly has more to do with advancing a radical liberal agenda than serving veterans,” he said. “It is a disgrace. This administration should rethink their priorities immediately.”
In a statement, GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis praised the news as “not only an overdue victory for transgender veterans, but the latest move from Secretary McDonough and the VA in affirming LGBTQ veterans.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.