WASHINGTON -- Help for combat-wounded troops who want to start families became a bit more likely Wednesday as Senate Democrats stiff-armed GOP opposition to a bill that would provide broader fertility treatment benefits.
Currently, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Defense Department provide some limited benefits to military couples who cannot have children because the husband or wife was injured in combat. But both the VA and the Pentagon specifically deny benefits to couples who cannot conceive on their own and need assisted reproductive services such as sperm donors, egg donors or other surrogates.
In a recent decision, the Pentagon said it will continue to deny support for male service members who cannot produce their own sperm because of combat injuries. Pentagon lawyers told The Huffington Post that the issue was so complex that it required more study.
A senior Pentagon health official, Warren Lockette, said earlier this summer that while dramatic advances in battlefield medicine are saving many more lives, those with severe and complex wounds are posing new challenges for policymakers. Questions such as whether the Defense Department should be in the business of hiring reproductive surrogates had never been considered before.
"The lawyers haven't kept up," Lockette acknowledged.
The Pentagon decision dashed the hopes of couples like Mark and Heather Litynski wishing to start a family. Mark is a young Marine who lost both legs, his left arm and his genitals to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.
The Litynskis and others who cannot have children because of combat injuries had hoped the Pentagon policy would be broadened. In a generally effective system of military health care, "this is one ugly hole," Heather Litynski told HuffPost this summer.
In a meeting Wednesday of the Senate Veterans Committee, Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) read from the HuffPost story on the Litynskis and declared, "I am not willing to keep this ugly hole open."
Murray said there are nearly 2,000 servicemen and servicewomen who have suffered genital wounds in combat. All of those who want to have children deserve the support of the nation, she said, not just those who fall into specific categories. "It is not our place to pick winners and losers based on the severity of their wounds," she declared.
Murray has sponsored legislation that would dramatically expand assisted reproductive services for injured military families, including the use of surrogates if a woman has suffered uterine trauma in a bomb blast. The legislation would direct the VA to pay for in vitro fertilization using donated sperm for the Litynskis and others like them.
But the legislation was opposed by committee Republicans led by Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, who demanded that the bill be delayed.
"I'm very concerned we are moving ahead" without having first heard the VA's views, he said. "There is tremendous pressure on the Defense Department to change where they are on this," Burr said, "but we shouldn't rush through this."
Burr also said he would refuse to approve any expansion of benefits without first knowing the cost -- even though he had proposed to pay for veterans to attend post-traumatic stress disorder therapy without demanding a cost estimate.
Outnumbered on the Senate panel, Burr said Wednesday that he would withdraw his opposition to the bill. But lacking a quorum, the committee took no vote on the legislation. With Congress recessing this month for the election and reconvening for a lame-duck session afterward, the bill may yet stall.
Murray told The Huffington Post that she will push hard for the bill to be passed "as expeditiously as possible."
"It is absolutely critical" to get the services that injured servicemen and servicewomen need, she said. "I am not willing to learn from the Pentagon on this. They have to learn from us."