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WASHINGTON – Advocates pushed members of Congress on Tuesday to expand and make permanent a federal program to help veterans conceive through in vitro fertilization.

The program was approved in 2017 to help veterans cover the cost of IVF if they have a service-connected disability that makes them infertile. Before that, the Department of Veterans Affairs was banned from providing the coverage, which can cost about $12,000 per pregnancy attempt.

As the law was written, the program is only temporary and must be reauthorized by Congress every year during federal budget negotiations. It’s also limited in scope, advocates said, applying only to veterans who are married and not using a surrogate or donated eggs or sperm.

IVF can be a time-consuming process and having the program’s existence at the discretion of Congress each year is “untenable,” said Barbara Collura, president of the National Infertility Association. She and Maureen Elias, associate legislative director for Paralyzed Veterans of America, testified about the issue Tuesday before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations.

“Not only does this uncertainty add anxiety to a very emotional, stressful and personal situation, but the decision to have a child shouldn’t be made because couples are worried the funding is going to run out or the service isn’t going to continue,” Elias said. “When it comes to planning your family, the federal budgetary cycle shouldn’t be a part of that.”

There have been efforts in Congress to make the program permanent and expand the services to unmarried couples or those using donated eggs or sperm. For years, those efforts have faltered.

The Associated Press reported in 2019 that the efforts have faced opposition from Catholic bishops and anti-abortion advocates who want to keep IVF within marriages and without third-party reproduction, meaning an egg or sperm donor or surrogate. Some anti-abortion groups oppose IVF altogether because of the excess fertilized embryos created during the treatment process, the AP reported.

“It’s baffling to us, because we’re talking about building families,” Collura said Tuesday. “This is normal, advanced medical treatment that’s been around for decades, so let’s treat it as such.”

The fertility needs of veterans are much higher than the rest of the U.S. population, according to a 2013 study by the VA. The study found that nearly 14% of men and 16% of women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan reported infertility.

Because of the use of improvised explosive devices against U.S. forces in those countries, thousands of service members have suffered traumatic wounds to their genitals and spines, leaving them unable to procreate. Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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