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Services for LGBTQ+ veterans could change

VA Medical Centers offer services for LGBTQ+ veterans that could change if a spending bill passes as is.
zim286/Getty Images/iStockphoto
VA Medical Centers offer services for LGBTQ+ veterans that could change if a spending bill passes as is.

When Rick Matash contacts a new veteran enrolled at the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center, they’re sometimes surprised to learn one of his titles - LGBTQ+ Veteran Care Coordinator.

“Some of them are pleasantly surprised, you know, that the VA does have such a position,” he said. “LGBT is not exactly something you identify with military culture most of the time.”

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a military spending bill last week with provisions that could limit the LGBTQ+ health services provided for veterans by the VA.

Matash said the LGBTQ+ care coordinator program started in 2016. Every VA hospital throughout the country must have a staff member assigned to the role, whether they are full-time, or taking it on as an ancillary duty like Matash - he’s also the post 9/11 veteran care coordinator in Wilkes-Barre.

Matash trains the VA staff on LGBTQ+ health care and works to make the facility a welcoming environment for LGBTQ+ veterans, many of whom have concerns about seeking care or healthcare benefits depending on their family environment or experiences with policies while on active duty.

“One of our goals is to help veterans understand that active duty is separate from, you know, veteran,” Matash said. “Those changes on the active duty side are not going to affect their health care.”

Veterans looking to transition have access to hormone replacement therapy, prosthetics, voice coaching and other services through their VA benefits.

The VA does not provide gender affirming surgery - and if the National Defense Authorization Act passes through the Senate as is, they won’t be able to pursue it or offer hormone replacement therapy. The House version of the bill, passed on July 14, prohibits spending on hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment surgeries.

Matash said he has seen the difference even starting gender affirming care can have for veterans.

“One of the veterans said to me once they started hormone therapy, and prior to that having a lot of mental health issues…’I feel like I’m finally the person that I was supposed to be,’” he said. “That really affected me…knowing how they struggled.”

Any LGBTQ+ veterans seeking care can enroll with the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center and reach out to Matash.

Sarah Scinto is the local host of All Things Considered on WVIA. She is a Connecticut native and graduate of King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, and has previously covered Northeastern Pennsylvania for The Scranton Times-Tribune, The Citizens’ Voice and Greater Pittston Progress.