The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) plans to amend existing guidelines to cover gender-affirming surgery for transgender veterans, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said on June 19 — though some trans military leaders are warning that the policy change could take time.
During a Pride Month event at the Orlando Vet Center, McDonough said the VA is in the process of reversing a 2013 ban that prevented transgender people from receiving gender-confirming surgery through the agency’s healthcare system. The latest directive also builds on trans health services, such as hormone therapy and post-operative care, that are already covered under the Veterans Health Administration. The announcement comes nearly six months after the Biden administration lifted a Trump-era ban prohibiting transgender people from working in the military.
“This process will require changing VA’s regulations and establishing [a] policy that will ensure the equitable treatment and safety of transgender veterans,” McDonough said in a speech at the Orlando Vet Center, according to the New York Times.
The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), a nationwide advocacy group that focuses on LGBTQ policy and organizes one of the most extensive national surveys about the experiences of transgender people in the US, applauded the agency’s direction. The organization said the move represents a step toward improving the lives of trans veterans.
“Everyone should have access to the health care they need to live healthy, happy lives,” NCTE executive director Mara Keisling said in a written statement. “We know that this is just the beginning of a long process, but it’s another step in the Biden administration’s effort to fight discrimination against transgender people, including our transgender veterans. Every veteran deserves to have access to the health care that they need, and the VA is working to make sure that includes transgender veterans as well.”
Ann Murdoch, president of the Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA), thanked McDonough for “his commitment to equality for all of America’s veterans.”
“Transgender veterans have earned the right to the accepted, medically necessary procedures and protocols prescribed by their health care providers without being subject to discrimination based on gender identity,” Ann Murdoch, president of the Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA), said in a written statement.
The VA’s timeline on the plans are not yet clear — and that point is being emphasized by some trans military advocates.
“This is Progress, make no mistake,” LeAnne Withrow, the communications director for SPARTA, a trans military advocacy group, said in a written statement. “But we aren’t going to see surgeries being done tomorrow. The rule-changing process could take months or perhaps even years. Regardless, those changes are finally being made and what is important is that this is a massive step forward for transgender veterans and military transgender healthcare.”
In February of 2013, the VA announced gender-confirming surgery “cannot be performed or funded by [the] VA.” Six years later, transgender veterans were hit with another discriminatory policy, rejecting trans service members from the military. This year, the Biden administration has taken steps to counteract the Trump era and has called for more widespread support for LGBTQ healthcare protections.
Last month, the Biden administration’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said it would include sexual orientation and gender identity within the definition of sex discrimination in healthcare. Additionally, Biden has proposed more funding for HIV/AIDS treatment and testing programs in the US.
According to the NCTE, approximately 134,000 veterans identify as transgender, and more than 15,000 transgender people actively serve in the military.
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