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Transgender veterans sue VA for excluding gender-affirming surgery from health benefits

A transgender veterans advocacy group sued the U.S. government Thursday for excluding gender-confirmation surgery from the health benefits of former service members.

The Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA) filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) over the group’s 2016 petition that asked the VA to start the process to alter its health benefits to cover gender-confirmation surgery for trans veterans.

It has been nearly eight years since TAVA submitted the petition and more than two years since VA Secretary Denis McDonough pledged to make such care available, but the department has yet to make any moves on the matter.

TAVA’s lawsuit, filed Thursday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C., seeks to compel the VA to soon respond to the 2016 petition.

“Three years ago today, President Biden repealed the military’s ban on transgender service members,” TAVA President Rebekka Eshler said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “Yet when we return from service, we do not receive the same level of healthcare from the VA that other veterans do. The natural next step toward transgender people’s true inclusion in the military is for the VA to remedy this gap. Transgender veterans have waited far too long for the VA to provide the gender-affirming surgery so many of us need to survive.”

While the VA covers nearly all transition-related care for veterans — such as hormone therapy, fertility preservation, hair removal and other medical services — it does not cover surgeries. Should trans veterans seek such procedures, they must use private health insurance or pay out of pocket. Active duty service members, however, do have such surgeries covered.

McDonough announced in June 2021 that the VA would take “the first necessary steps to expand VA’s care to include gender confirmation surgery,” but cautioned it would take time.

But Eshler said the VA has failed to act in the nearly three years since the promise, a delay that “endangers the health and well-being of many of the nation’s 163,000 transgender veterans” and “violates the VA’s legal obligations.”

The VA declined to comment, citing its policy of not speaking on potential or pending litigation.

Trans people are two-to-three times more likely to serve in the military, with nearly 10,000 trans veterans receiving transition-related care in the VA health care system, according to the department.

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