The Department of Veterans Affairs is "closely watching" states' responses to the toppling of Roe v. Wade to determine whether it will take steps to offer abortions to veteran patients, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said Wednesday.
McDonough said the department is not barred by law from providing abortions and does them in cases where the mother's life is endangered by a pregnancy.
Given that the VA cares for roughly 300,000 female veterans of childbearing age, McDonough said, if the department sees their access to abortions decline, it could start providing them.
"We are closely watching what happens for our veterans and if we see that there is a diminution in access to services, or if we see that, because of threatened legal jeopardy to our providers or confusion from our providers about what's allowable, and we think, therefore, that we need to change policy and make those rules, we will," McDonough said in a press conference.
The Veterans Health Care Act of 1992 directed the VA to provide women's health services, including reproductive health care, but it excluded infertility services, abortion or pregnancy care except in cases of a complicated pregnancy or a pregnancy made more complex as the result of a service-related condition.
The 1976 Hyde Amendment prohibits federal funding for abortions for reasons other than to save the life of a mother or in cases of rape or incest.
But McDonough maintains that the VA has the legal authority to provide abortions.
"It is a long-held view of the VA general counsel that we are not statutorily prohibited from providing abortion counseling or abortion services," McDonough said.
He added that VA medical centers have not provided abortions since 1989 because they are not included in the department's medical benefits package. To begin offering them, the VA would need to go through the formal federal rule-making process, McDonough said.
"If we're going to offer it, we do that through the rules, and I have also said to Congress that we would not surprise them," he said.
Lawmakers previously have taken issue with the VA's interpretation of the law. Last year, Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee's ranking Republican, challenged the department's stance.
"What is troubling about these statements is that VA's prohibition on abortion services is more than a policy decision or regulatory matter; it's the law," Moran said in a press release in August.
Texas, with the second largest population of veterans, 1.6 million, and 16 other states have banned or sharply curtailed access to abortions since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June on Dobbs v. Jackson, effectively overturning previous court decisions that made abortion a constitutional right.
Twenty states, including California, with the largest population of veterans, have laws in place to protect abortion services and health providers.
McDonough said the VA will continue to provide abortions in cases of ectopic pregnancies and other complications that pose a threat to the life of the mother, and it provides contraception, including emergency contraception.
"We will continue to provide access to that care," McDonough said. "And if there's a state law that inhibits the provision of that care, we will make sure our providers have the support to continue that access to care. We coordinate this closely with the Department of Justice."
According to McDonough, the department is considering waiving copayments for birth control but hasn't acted on the move because the VA suspended copayments for all medications through September 2021 as part of COVID-19 pandemic relief and has not yet moved on the change.
"We did not think it was urgent or timely, but obviously we are looking at that," McDonough said.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.