News (USA)

Transgender veterans sue the VA for promised health care coverage

The transgender flag held up by several people
Protesters raised the transgender flag outside the White House in July, 2017, to denounce Trump's transgender military ban. Photo: Ted Eytan/Flickr

The Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA) has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for the agency to cover gender-affirming health care for transgender veterans. The lawsuit says that the VA isn’t even responding to a petition TAVA filed in 2016 and that the Biden administration has been making vague promises about the healthcare coverage for years without following through.

Currently, veterans can get hormone replacement therapy, talk therapy, and some other gender-affirming health services covered, but not surgery. Surgery is explicitly excluded from coverage by the VA.

TAVA said that they sent a petition to the VA in 2016 that still hasn’t been responded to. They claim in their lawsuit that the eight-year delay violates federal law that governs agencies. They argue that the delay is “egregious” in part because it’s denying “critical and lifesaving care for those who live with gender dysphoria.”

“Thorough treatment of gender dysphoria is particularly essential because veterans are already at a unique risk of suicide compared to their civilian counterparts,” the lawsuit states. “Gender-confirmation surgery is therefore a critical bulwark against exacerbation of that risk.”

The lawsuit discusses Natalie Kastner, a TAVA member who was denied gender-affirming surgery by the VA.

“Desperate and unable to access gender-confirmation surgery via the VA or alternative means, she removed her right testicle at home on March 5, 2022, without anesthesia or formal medical training,” the lawsuit states. “In doing so, she accidentally severed an artery.”

She still managed to drive herself to an ER and survived. She is still “anxiously awaiting the VA’s response to TAVA’s petition.”

“What am I supposed to tell my transgender veterans that are trying to commit suicide because they can’t see themselves in their body?” TAVA president Bekky Eshler told “We’ve been trying to be friendly with the VA. We’ve worked with them really well. But at the end of the day, you got to keep your promises.”

In June 2021, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough announced that VA healthcare would soon cover gender confirmation surgery for transgender veterans.

It is “unacceptable,” he said at the time, that LGBTQ+ veterans have more negative healthcare experiences and less access to the lifesaving care they need.

“Due in part to minority stress, LGBTQ+ veterans experience mental illness and suicidal thoughts at far higher rates than those outside their community, but they are significantly less likely to seek routine care, largely because they fear discrimination.”

He also said that it was President Joe Biden’s decision to have the VA cover gender-affirming surgery.

McDonough said that he expected the rule-making process to take about two years, but the VA still hasn’t even offered a timeline for the rule to be passed.

This past November, TAVA sent a letter asking the VA to respond to their 2016 petition, but only got a vague letter back from the VA.

“It’s really, really low-hanging fruit for the VA, and it just goes to show how egregious it is that they have not said yes or no, either way,” Sonora Taffa, a law student intern, told “They’re just delaying, delaying, delaying, and this [legal action] is just asking for clarity and for a response.”

“It’s our mission at VA to provide transgender veterans – and all veterans – with the world-class care and benefits they deserve,” the VA said in a statement. “We thank each and every one of these heroes for their service and sacrifice, and we will continue to work to serve them as well as they have served our nation.”

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat at The Trans Lifeline (1-877-565-8860) is staffed by trans people and will not contact law enforcement. The Trevor Project provides a safe, judgement-free place to talk for youth via chat, text (678-678), or phone (1-866-488-7386). Help is available at all three resources in English and Spanish.

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