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Wounded veterans and their spouses who want to have children could get the government to pay for treatments such as in vitro fertilization under legislation beginning to move through Congress in the waning days of the session.
By voice vote, the Senate passed a bill Thursday to update the Veterans Affairs Department's medical coverage for one of the signature wounds of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: trauma to a soldier's reproductive organs.
Nearly 2,000 service members suffered such wounds between 2003 and 2011. But when wounded veterans went to the VA for medical help in starting a family, they were told the VA doesn't provide that kind of care.
A similar bill is pending in the House. Supporters said the Senate's action increases its chances of becoming law before Congress adjourns.
The chief sponsor, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she has heard from veterans whose marriages have dissolved because of the stress of infertility, in combination with the stresses of readjusting to civilian life after severe injury.
"Any service member who sustains this type of serious injury deserves so much more," she said.
With both chambers deadlocked on budget issues, even Murray was surprised the bill didn't raise a single objection in the Senate. Any objection would have quashed it for the year.
As Murray spoke, Tracy Keil of Parker, Colo., watched from the gallery. Her husband, Staff Sgt. Matt Keil, was paralyzed from the chest down after he was shot in the neck in Iraq. The Keils were able to afford the nearly $32,000 it cost for in vitro fertilization and now have 2-year-old twins, Matthew and Faith. But knowing that many families cannot afford that on their own, the Keils have been lobbying Congress to expand the VA's coverage.
"It made us feel like we were back on track, that our marriage was where we wanted it to be and that our family was where we wanted it to be," she said of having children. "Even though we had the injury disrupt the timeline of our expectations, it's everything we've always dreamed of and it makes Matt feel whole again."
"We wake up to the joys of our kids every day and I can't picture my life without them now," Matt Keil added in a telephone interview.
The legislation is estimated to cost $568 million over five years, to be covered through savings from scaling down military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Rep. Jeff Miller, the Republican chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said he's anxious to pass the bill this Congress, but he has concerns that the legislation would take money away from troops still fighting in Afghanistan to pay for the new benefit, .
Matt McAlvanah, a spokesman for Murray, said any notion that the funding for fertility treatments would impact troops in the field is false.
Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., is spearheading efforts in the House to get the legislation passed.