Transgender Veterans Sue VA Over Exclusion of Gender-Affirming Surgery

Gender-Affirming Surgery Exclusion
Image courtesy: CNBC News

An advocacy group for transgender veterans, the Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA), has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for its failure to include gender-confirmation surgery in veterans’ health benefits. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C., seeks to compel the VA to respond to a petition submitted by TAVA in May 2016, urging the department to amend its health benefits to cover gender-confirmation surgery.

While the VA covers various transition-related care, including hormone therapy, voice training, fertility preservation, and hair removal, it excludes surgical procedures such as genital and breast surgeries from its benefits. Trans veterans seeking these surgeries are required to rely on private health insurance or pay out of pocket, in contrast to active-duty service members who receive coverage for such operations.

TAVA President Rebekka Eshler emphasized that transgender veterans often face persistent gender dysphoria, leading to significant mental health challenges, including suicidal ideation, when they are unable to access necessary care. Despite promises from VA officials and a statement by Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough in June 2021 about expanding care to include gender confirmation surgery, TAVA has not received updates or a response to its 2016 petition.

The lawsuit highlights the increased risk of physical harm, psychological distress, and suicide faced by transgender veterans due to the VA’s failure to provide gender-confirmation surgery. Major medical associations recognize the critical role of such surgeries in treating gender dysphoria, with studies showing significant reductions in psychological distress and suicidal ideation post-surgery.

Natalie Kastner, a veteran who resorted to self-harm due to the lack of coverage, shared her harrowing experience. After being denied gender-affirming surgery by the VA, she performed a self-orchiectomy, leading to severe bleeding and a near-death experience. Kastner’s story underscores the urgent need for inclusive healthcare policies for transgender veterans.

With at least 10,000 trans veterans currently receiving transition-related care through the VA, the lawsuit argues that the VA’s exclusion of gender-confirmation surgery perpetuates a crisis within the transgender veteran community. TAVA aims to push for change, and if the VA rejects the petition, the group will continue advocating for the importance of these life-saving surgeries for veterans.

Re-reported from the article originally published in The CNBC News

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