The Department of Veterans Affairs for the first time will provide in vitro fertilization services to single troops and unmarried couples, bringing the agency’s practices in line with newly announced policies by the Defense Department that expand access to the reproductive procedures.

Advocates hailed the move as a major step forward for veterans who are struggling to start a family but had been shut out of VA support on the issue until now because of outdated rules.

“This may be more significant than the Defense Department decision because it’s a larger pool of retirees than active-duty personnel, and there are going to be more and more veterans in need of these services,” said Sonia Ossorio, executive director of National Organization for Women NYC and Women’s Justice NOW, which filed a lawsuit last summer prompting the change.

“For many of these individuals, they wait to finish their tours and get out of the military before they can begin to deal with the issue.”

Until now, individuals seeking IVF services or financial reimbursement from both the Defense Department and VA had to be legally married to be eligible.

In a court filing Dec. 26 in response to the group’s lawsuit, Defense officials said they will roll out a policy in February allowing service members in any relationship status to have IVF covered.

They also announced that couples will be able to use donated sperm or eggs in their efforts to conceive a child. Previously, married couples could only use their own sperm and eggs.

At the time of the Defense Department filing, VA officials said they were still reviewing their policies. On Jan. 25, just as the military changes were receiving widespread media attention, VA representatives informed NOW and the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School that they would “align the coverage it provides with that available under the forthcoming amended DOD policy.”

On Tuesday, during his monthly press conference, VA Secretary Denis McDonough could not say when the changes will officially take place or when individuals who were previously ineligible may be allowed to apply for the IVF services. The department still needs to wait on Defense Department actions before officially updating any policies.

“But since DOD is changing its policy, we too will change our policy,” he said. “The intent is to increase opportunities for access among more veterans.”

Natalie Geismar, a law student intern at the legal clinic, praised both agencies for “pledging to remove the discriminatory marriage requirement and categorical ban on donor gametes.”

Lawmakers have proposed changing the rules surrounding VA’s IVF eligibility standards in the past, but the issue has gotten bogged down in political fighting.

Geismar said despite the pending changes, advocates are still concerned about other restrictions on veterans accessing the reproductive services, such as a requirement that infertility must be the result of a service-connected disability or illness. She said her group will continue to challenge that issue.

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.

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