The Department of Veterans Affairs is moving to lift a 20-year ban on gender confirmation surgeries for trans people and will allow the procedure to be covered under VA benefits, Secretary Denis McDonough is expected to announce Saturday.
“[This is] allowing transgender vets to go through the full gender confirmation process with VA by their side,” McDonough will say, according to prepared remarks obtained by the Military Times for an event at the Orlando VA Healthcare System in Florida. “We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do, but because they can save lives.”
The VA will also change the name of its LGBT health program to the LGBTQ+ health program, part of an effort to “reflect new community standards of inclusiveness and anticipate future changes in terms.”
The VA currently provides hormone therapy, mental healthcare, preoperative evaluations, and long-term post-op care for transgender veterans, but it has banned coverage of the surgery itself since 1999, when an explanation of the medical benefits package explicitly excluded “gender alterations.”
LGBTQ organization GLAAD cheered the VA’s decision. “Transgender veterans deserve equal access to medically necessary and life-saving healthcare, including gender confirmation surgery,” said GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis. “This news is not only an overdue victory for transgender veterans, but the latest move from Sec. McDonough and the VA in affirming LGBTQ veterans.”
The last push to reverse the ban came in 2016, when the VA proposed a rule change that would cover surgeries for transgender vets, stating, “Increased understanding of both gender dysphoria and surgical techniques in this area have improved significantly, and surgical procedures are now widely accepted in the medical community as medically necessary treatment for gender dysphoria.” That proposal came after two transgender veterans, Dee Fulcher and Gio Silva, backed by the Transgender American Veterans Association, petitioned the VA to cover surgeries related to transitions, but fell apart amid concerns over funding.
The news comes after McDonough pledged to “make our VA even more welcoming to all veterans — including our women veterans, veterans of color and LGBTQ veterans” when he was nominated as Biden’s VA secretary. In January, Biden also repealed a policy put in place by former president Donald Trump that banned most transgender individuals from serving in the armed forces. And the next month, McDonough ordered a review of VA policies to make sure that transgender veterans and VA staff do not face discrimination based on their gender identity or gender expression, examining “the entire slate of services that the department provides.” That review is ongoing.
A VA spokesperson told CNN, which first reported the news, that the VA will need to make policy changes to begin covering gender confirmation surgery and will start the process this summer, but it can take years to create a new federal regulation. Currently, according to the National Center for Transgender Equity, there are an estimated 134,000 transgender veterans of the American military in addition to an estimated 15,000 transgender active servicemembers.