Episode 46 Transcript

Ep 46 Transcript | Military Family Building Coalition with Ellen Gustafson & Katy Bell Hendrickson

Ellen Gustafson
The issue of family building and the military which is very much Katy and my passion due to our personal experiences.

Intro
Whoever thought making a baby could be so hard? Luckily, the fertility journey isn’t meant to be traveled alone. Eloise Drane has helped hundreds of people build and grow their families over the last 15 years and she’s ready to share insider knowledge and expertise with you. So grab a seat and let’s talk fertility and alternative family building in the fertility cafe.

Eloise Drane
Hello, and thank you for joining me on Fertility Café. Today, we get to talk about a topic that is actually near and dear to my heart – military families. Although my husband and I got together shortly after he left the military, it is still a very strong part of our lives. The stress of wanting to grow a family but needing to weigh the financial costs and job costs of military service puts an unnecessary and unfair burden on military families. Military spouses are the backbone of the surrogacy community. I understand that 15 to 20% of surrogate babies nationwide are carried by military wives, even though the military makes up less than 1% of the US population. So it’s interesting how essential military spouses are to surrogacy, but how those in the military who struggled to build their own family supported and what sort of coverage and care is available to them. Turns out those who protect and serve are not receiving the care and coverage they deserve. Currently, US Military Health Care TRICARE does not cover many types of reproductive assistance or adoption for military families. This means that the vast majority of military couples who do not get pregnant in the windows they are physically together, timed with your duty responsibilities, or those who are in a same-sex couple relationship, or those who choose to continue to serve but want to preserve their eggs or sperm are not provided with the means to do so as part of their military health care. Here to speak with us about the challenge to access and lack of affordability for family building solutions for military families, are our guests and co-founders of the military family coalition, Ellen Gustafson and Katy Bell Hendrickson. Ellen Gustafson is a social entrepreneur, author, activist, and most importantly, mom and military spouse. She has done extensive work toward food system change offering We The Eaters: if we can change dinner, we can change the world, co-founding Food Tank the Food Think Tank giving four TED talks on food system change, and advising big food businesses like perilla and startups like food stamps. She is the co-founder of feed and the feed Foundation and the CO director of the summit Institute since 2016. She is the mom of three miracle toddlers and lives with them and her husband in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Her personal experiences inspired her to find ways to support active duty service members to build the families they want regardless of deployment schedules, fertility challenges, or financial situations. Katie Bell Hendrickson is a military spouse to a retired career Naval Special Warfare Officer and mother of five children. She and her husband have experience with adoption, assisted reproduction, and third-party reproduction. Katy has been active in the warrior and Family Support Group naval amphibious base coronado as a senior peer mentor and has led multiple workshops on family building, covering the topics of art and adoption. In her spare time, she is an architect by education and training, having spent the last decade working mainly in residential design in historic preservation. Katy currently lives in Washington DC with her husband, youngest son, and twin daughters. The military family coalition is a clearinghouse of information about infertility, adoption, and fertility preservation support for military members and families, educating them on options available and how to navigate the TRICARE policies that don’t support noncoital fertility assistance. They support today’s troops with cryopreservation, fertility treatments, and adoption by partnering with industry leaders and donors to support military members. It’s also working to educate the public and advocate for change as the vast majority of Americans don’t know that our government policies don’t cover the costs of military families who need medical treatments or adoption to build their families. Welcome, Ellen and Katy, very excited to speak on the topic, as I mentioned earlier which is very near and dear to my heart. And as we get started first would you mind sharing about yourselves in your own life experiences to parenthood and an Ellen I’ll pick on you first since E becomes before K.

Ellen Gustafson
Sure, no problem. Well, thank you so much for having us we’re really happy to be here and to talk about the issue of family building in the military which is very much Katie and my passion due to our personal experiences. My husband is an active-duty naval officer and when he was finished training out in San Diego and we were ready to get started with trying to have a family we came to it knowing that my family my maternal side had a five-generation mystery of male stillbirth and so I knew this going into trying to have children but with something so nebulous, as you know, a history of stillbirth in my family there’s yes unfortunately in modern medicine say there’s still not much you can do other than try yourself. So our first attempt at getting pregnant we did get pregnant unfortunately, it was a male and while my husband was deployed out of the country in a combat zone I had my stillbirth. Having the process of the excitement of pregnancy and then having your husband deploy and then losing the pregnancy while he was gone was of course incredibly stressful. And you know, we were told in the hospital after you know, upon my husband on the phone and me in labor, we were told that really the only “answer” was to do IVF and to try to have girls because due to this mystery of male fetal death, there was no sort of medical diagnosis that we could say we could try to get at. So I started on a journey of a sort of a medically advised IVF and called TRICARE which is the military health care company to say okay, you know, I had this really expensive hospital visit due to a stillborn and now I’m going to do this medical procedure that will mean I won’t have another male so I theoretically won’t have another stillborn and the answer was a cold hard no because TRICARE does not cover any kind of fertility, advanced fertility treatment. The policy is literally written that even for military families who are separated because of their job that Military Health Care will not cover noncoital reproductive procedures. So we were on our own and we went through six really hard IVF cycles despite having no fertility challenges. We had two different doctors it was over a span of years I gave lots of injections to myself, I even met a random military member on an airplane and I recognized his eyeglasses or his sunglasses sorry as sort of military-issued sunglasses and I asked him to give me one of the shots in an airport once for my trigger shot. I know that guy’s the military. I could see it, I could smell it. Yeah, so so after our long journey of six rounds of IVF we at the end of the process had made a bunch of healthy embryos but also had gotten some great support from the Mayo Clinic and we discovered the cause of fetal death in my family we did a ton of research that we sort of offered up our genes to and now the diagnosis is known it’s written about in a prenatal diagnostic medical journal, and we were able to test our male embryos to see if any of them you know we’re okay and didn’t have this diagnosis. And so the story ends really happily for us we at the end of knowing that we had healthy male embryos that did not have this disorder and we had one female healthy embryo we actually after my one of my husband’s deployments got naturally pregnant with a little girl who is our oldest and then we then had boy-girl twins who are only 21 months younger than our older daughter so very very you know the challenging process like so many families go through and of course, complicated by you know, five deployments and a lot of other absences but our story ends happily and it gave me a ton of fire in my gut to try to fix the problem for other military families.

Eloise Drane
My gosh. Wow. So following that, what is your story?

Katy Hendrickson
Yeah, I’ll jump in and you know, it’s funny Ellen and I worked so closely together and yet I get the chance to learn something new on air with you. Ellen, I have no idea about the trigger shot but it really makes me it makes me you know, obviously recognize that within the military we have this trust in our own training and our shared sort of DNA and the oath of service and I’m not surprised you reached out and said hey if I just pulled down this part of my you know, yoga pant can you just get it out right where I need it three inches to the left. So that’s awesome. And to your point, I mean, you know, you got to do what you got to do. So you know, Ellen and I, you know, know each other’s stories well, and of course, there’s two to give birth to a stillborn baby is terrifically traumatic. And so, the segue into my story, I think is this shared platform for loss. I was widowed in my first marriage and came into my second marriage with three little ones. And we began our family-building journey as a military family with adoption. And that process, we learned a lot in the world of family building adoption, has a special place in my heart are my sons were considered paternally orphaned. And so that process is pretty involved. And we learned a lot, it took us a little over a year and a half, to finalize it from start to finish. And in that place of understanding that whole process, our hearts were really open to growing our family through adoption. So we actually spent another two and a half years in that world looking at domestic adoption. And, as Ellen mentioned, our husbands are in the same community Naval Special Warfare. So there’s a high tempo to deployment separation, and we were, my husband was unaccompanied for much of that time. So geographically separated, and we just timed out in the adoption process, we couldn’t keep up with the number of home studies we needed. Because of some consecutive moves, it doesn’t matter if you move across the street, if you have a change of address you go through the whole home study process over and over again. And certainly for those military members who are considering adoption moving from state to state, and that constant cycle, it’s hard, you really have to rely on you know, a lot of timing and sometimes just good luck to get chosen within the window that you have your home study and you’re permanently residing somewhere. So when we timed out of our attempts at adoption, we pivoted and really looked at advanced medical, you know, reproduction as a method that would work to our advantage clearly not being together. And so jumped into ART and looked at both donor biology in the way of an egg donor as well as gestational surrogacy. So we got very excited about that process. It kind of tapped into both my husband and I’s interest in, you know, a little bit of science, but also everything that was happening in the world of ART and went through several rounds, much like many people do. But I guess, you know, to really make this, you know, the full story. It was our gestational surrogate where we had such a terrific relationship, and really the blessing of meeting someone who would be considered a permanent part of our family-building efforts. And so we were very fortunate to bring two baby girls into the world, twins, and they are 18 months old.

Eloise Drane
Wow. Oh, my gosh, you have baby babies.

Katy Hendrickson
We do. We have five, you know, all together, but a nice, you know, I like to say we didn’t have all at once. So there is some spacing there. But it’s really a testament I think Ellen and I’s stories to where we became impassioned with understanding how incredibly difficult this was. How emotionally challenging the type of focus and just determination that had to go along with it, in addition to the financial challenges, and all of those are terrific barriers for the military member.

Eloise Drane
This leads me to that you guys are the co-founders of the Military Family Building Coalition, which is a nonprofit organization committed to supporting military families and helping them build families that they want. Why was it necessary to create this organization in the first place?

Ellen Gustafson
Well, I’ll jump in quickly. Katy and I met because she was organizing as a military spouse, volunteering, a series of workshops for military families in our Navy community, about different family building issues. And when I walked in the door and sat down and thought this is crazy, that there are two, you know, a number of spouses in the room, some active-duty members, but that this was a volunteer effort for something so unbelievably important as having a family and building a family. And that this was something that was just sort of like put off to the side as an oh, isn’t that nice that these that the spouses are getting together to talk about this? Katy and I sort of had a shared sense of drive and purpose, but also that you know, many people look at family building challenges and think that the answer that the challenges are in many ways financial, because it’s incredibly expensive, and it is really expensive for military families when it’s, you know, as of course, not a covered benefit, but that that’s not the that’s not it, right? It doesn’t just end that expensive, it’s that there are so many barriers to getting there. And so Katy and I started talking very casually, and then very intentionally and over time, especially due to our, you know, sort of COVID lives and our constant conversations. And as our twins got older, hers and mine, we realized that this wasn’t just something that we were going to be angry about, or something that we were going to, you know, try to help one off one at a time, one baby at a time, you know, helping spouses this was policy change. And this was big thinking, and that we were probably the only ones who understood the problems and had the passion to go and try to change them.

Katy Hendrickson
Yeah, it’s a great recap of, of where we began and I also think what one of the things that Ellen and I recognized in each other as partners in this process was this, you know, commitment to the strategic and the critical thinking that went behind all the resources we were going to put into this effort. And so that very much pointed us in the direction of a coalition. We were very clear from the very beginning that partnering with the military’s largest nonprofit organizations that share the space of family and family support was the actual platform, the launchpad for us. We did that incredibly effectively in part because no other military organization addresses the area of the family building as it relates to reproductive health and includes adoption. So I think it was really this you know, we looked at each other and really understood from our own backgrounds, certainly outside of just our roles within the military as spouses that we had that capacity to think differently about this topic and how to solve it

Eloise Drane
You know, obviously, infertility is a challenge for all who face it but how are active duty service members faced with additional bureaucratic and logistical obstacles that they have to endure?

Ellen Gustafson
Well, so there are two things I can jump in with number one is we say that you know, the military itself is a family-building challenge in many ways. When you are separated from your partner due to the service which you are choosing and you are you know happy to be a voluntary member of the military. When you know when part of that duty and that service to the country means that you have to be physically separated not by your own choice and not by your own you know, timing that in and of itself can be a family-building challenge. So not only deployments but training trips and you know all the other separations working nights for example means that you can’t always be home with your partner during the times that you know are able to potentially try to have children. Plus we have a diverse military that looks like the diverse American population. So we have same-sex partners and we have single people that want to have children and we know we have a broad scope of the American public serving voluntarily and that their life is made more challenging due to military service. And that’s not even to touch on what might be problematic in terms of chemical exposures, some of the uniforms, flying in airplanes might make your fertility challenged, hormonal imbalances that might come from your service so these are all elements. The second thing that that that we sort of look at as an overarching challenge that most people in their jobs and who have health insurance who are looking for coverage for this issue of infertility it’s a medical issue, they’re looking for a covered they’re going to go back to their company and they’re going to go to their HR department. They’re going to say hey HR you know, we really would love it if you would provide some kind of fertility benefit or egg freezing or sperm preservation or whatever it is. In the military you don’t have an HR department to go to you’re going to your next you know your next level up the commanding officer and then they’re going to their next level commanding officer and really your HR department is congress who decides what the rules are, that you need to live by. So I think those are two major challenges, the service that keeps you apart, and the fact that you don’t necessarily have someone you know, outside of your chain of command that you can go and complain to about these issues.

Katy Hendrickson
Yeah, and I love that, you know, it’s easy to say, you know, we could talk all day about the differences and there’s many, but we’re also alike. The general population from a societal lens, in the fact that fertility is impacting our society at large, is some of that is just simply due to shifts in norms. The military is no different as couples or as military members for waiting longer to have our families for timing around career advancement we’re timing and around educational goals, we’re certainly using financial wickets as another reason to plan for that period in which your family will thing, and very much so for the military member when is the right time that I will also have support? So with our dual-military couples, they’re looking at how do I ensure that I have childcare? Because both members, both parents have taken an oath of service, where will I have perhaps closeness to relatives or other members that can help and step in if I need to deploy? So in some ways, you know, we are a lot like the general population, and in that bigger societal view, in which now we’re looking at what was considered, you know, maybe a late, you know, family building effort in your 30s. That’s really the norm, particularly as we look at all the challenges we face when it comes to building our families.

Eloise Drane
Yeah, I mean, I can go in all day about insurance. But when it comes to the military, obviously, it’s TRICARE. That’s it. There are no other options. Currently, what does TRICARE cover in terms of assisted reproductive services?

Ellen Gustafson
Yeah, I mean, so the policy is spelled out in a very Googleable document and it’s spelled out in a way that is actually incredibly confusing. So you read down the document, and it seems to say, Okay, if you have a, if you have a diagnosis of infertility if you’re married, and if you have a service connected injury, you could qualify for getting covered care. That’s kind of true. Unfortunately, it’s not the whole story. So the policy is written as I said earlier, that TRICARE literally the words written this way does not cover noncoital reproductive procedures. So which means you can if you’re potentially having proof with your doctor that you’ve been trying for a year unsuccessfully, which you know, there’s a very narrow group of people who can actually prove that, in our opinion, and in our experience, especially in the military, you can then maybe get Clomid to help you with a natural cycle. Well, that might help some people. And that’s, you know, okay, but the second you step into needing IUI, donor biology, you’re a single parent, you just want to freeze your eggs potentially, because you’re not yet ready to be a parent, or you need the full suite of IVF support, that is something that you are either going to get really lucky to get on a waiting list for one of six treatment facilities in the entire country that does treatment, because they are teaching hospitals and they need to keep their reproductive endocrinologist that is on staff fully, you know, fully in practice. If you get into one of those, those few those six clinics, you happen to live be stationed nearby, you meet all these other criteria, you’re married, you know, you can prove these things, your doctor signs off, you’re still paying for the treatment, you’re just getting a bit of a discount in you know, some of the doctors time. So it’s one of those things where at the end of the day, the vast majority of military families are going out into the public marketplace, and they are paying with their own dime. And maybe there’s a great clinic that has military discounts, of which there are many, and we are super grateful and if your clinic does not have a military discount, we highly recommend that you offer and publicize it. And then you’re doing what the rest of the population is despite the fact that you’re likely having greater challenges in family building due to the fact that you’re in the military. And that’s the piece that really gets us going and wanting to make a change.

Katy Hendrickson
And I think what we’ve learned to really assist in our military members and their understanding of their health insurance, TRICARE is to emphasize the difference between care and coverage. So as Ellen spoke, there’s very limited access to care for reproductive health through these six military treatment facilities. So you’re getting access to care, but you are never covered, 100% coverage does not exist. And so that care that is provided there is subsidized. So as Ellen pointed out, you’re still paying out of pocket for that. And you know, as Ellen and I, part of our mission is to support the military member who is struggling at this very moment to build their family. We spent a lot of time listening to the challenges that military members have financially to pay for this care. And, you know, it concerns us greatly that it’s something that we want to increase awareness on that military member going into debt, taking out terrific loans, credit cards, second mortgages. That’s a national security risk. We recognize that there are other measures put into place to protect the military members from having financial jeopardy, and yet, you know, here we are without access to this essential care in the treatment of disease and fertility, or to assist in our readiness or other facets of military life and when it intersects with family building, and all of that is, is really paid for out of pocket.

Eloise Drane
And then let’s talk into or bring in even the subject. I know we keep talking about the military members, but what about the spouses and the partners of the military members? Who are the ones that actually had the fertility issues, they might not be the service member themselves? It could be your partner or your spouse. And what options do they have? You know, both of you weren’t necessarily in the military, although yes, your spouse is worse. So by that, right, you were, but you didn’t choose to, you know, raise your hand per se and say, I’m willing to do this for this country, but your partner did. But you were the ones potentially that had that issue. And I’m just generalizing here. So what do you do then?

Ellen Gustafson
Well, I mean, again, here, there’s the intricacies of military healthcare, where some military spouses have chosen to have sort of the full suite of Military Health Care, TRICARE Prime, it’s called but and then there’s an option where you can go out in town and have co-pays and you know, there are limitations. Can you access military doctors? Well, only if you have a certain type of health care insurance. So those are intricacies that the general population doesn’t necessarily need to get in the weeds with. But what I think is the interesting comment is that you recognize when you’re there that you need help with fertility, Katie has a funny line, which is that you don’t marry someone in the military and read the TRICARE benefits before you walk down the aisle to say, oh, let’s see here, what am I gonna get? And you don’t do that in the civilian world, either. You don’t wait a minute here before we get married, what kind of benefits does your company have? So I think that that’s just one of those things where you are if you marry someone who’s active duty, and you know, their active duty, you choose a life of service in a certain manner, you know your partner is likely going to be, you know, separated from you for times. And then like I said, you don’t always know that you have this pre-existing or newly existing fertility challenge to deal with. And so you’re sitting there on this new information that’s really, really, really important for a major life choice and event that you want to have. And it can be incredibly debilitating and devastating. And I think this is where we hope that the American public can understand that when you say thank you for your service, and then you go back and see that your Congressperson has not voted to allow military families to have coverage for their fertility, health care. How do you know how do we justify that, and I don’t think I think the vast majority of Americans do not know that this is the case that military families are struggling with. And we believe strongly that the American public really does want to support the troops. They really do. And we feel it, we feel that gratitude, but that’s what’s not matched is then the knowledge that there are some major policy issues that aren’t being met by our current written law and, and healthcare.

Eloise Drane
Yeah, well, and let’s, let’s talk about the bill, the veteran families Health Services Act of 2021, which is a bill your organization is working to pass. What would this bill do for military families?

Ellen Gustafson
Well, so this the current piece of legislation that was introduced by Senator Patty Murray, along with Senator Duckworth, a bunch of other senators, and in the house by Representative Larson, so it was a by camera piece of legislation was is an incredibly comprehensive change to fully cover military members and military families for their fertility and family building care, both fertility health care and for adoption. And we are 100% supportive of the notion that there are leaders in Congress that see that this is a massive hole in what we’re providing as benefits to military families. When you’re in the military, you are sort of, you know, you’re underpaid relative to what your skills are in the general public. You’re volunteering, you’re choosing to serve. And so I think there’s a lot of leaders in Congress who understand that if we’re not keeping up with the type of health care benefits that keep people interested in staying in the military, we’re not going to keep people in the military long term. And so for this particular piece of legislation, it just so happens that it’s by both houses, but it’s all Democrats. And so without Republican support on this legislation, we don’t think that it’s going to be able to go anywhere other than this incredible piece of legislation being introduced. We’re hoping that in the next couple of years, we can as the new organization, that’s the first one of its kind on this issue for military, active military members, and families, we’re hoping that we can see bipartisan support for this issue and not see it just because hey, we want to support a, you know, a narrow group of people or whatever, but see it as military retention, and a military readiness objective. It sounds really sweet that a bunch of you know, congressional leaders want to support our troops. It’s not actually just really sweet, it’s really strategic. And it’s really important for the American public to help get behind this on both sides of the aisle, and see this as a way that we are doing right by our military, and ensuring that we still have an all-volunteer force that’s ready to fight.

Katy Hendrickson
Yeah, we looked at this issue from the very beginning as something that, you know, we really had to support, really in an argument for warfighting, it’s, that sounds like a little bit of a stretch when you’re thinking about how do we, you know, make babies But the truth is, you know, we did the research, we understand the parameters, this is about a war on talent, if, if the military is not offering reproductive health care as part of the essential care, you’re not going to keep your top talent. They are going to, to leave and, and certainly find more attractive organizations to work for, in the name of getting that type of care. We know we recognize that it is also a retention and readiness issue. The readiness piece through cryopreservation is incredibly impactful. And, and as Ellen and I have pointed out, you know, the economics, the American taxpayer is paying for this already. By not having this type of care included we know this is costing our bottom line with the loss of talent, and not to mention just the incredible health care costs that come with the lack of coverage. Ellen and I both had twins in the NICU for a significant amount of time. And the NICU is the most expensive part of any hospital. So by not thinking strategically and thinking smart about this, we are paying for it. I think it’s also interesting, Ellen to mention, and you did a good job summarizing the veteran’s Family Health Services Act, though it starts with veterans, it was written intended for our active duty component as well. And it is exciting to be working with this coalition currently with ASRM and resolve to really look at a bipartisan approach to this. But there are obstacles, I think it’s really important to ask, Well, wait a minute, everything you’re saying makes so much sense. Why is it that the military member does not have access to this? What are the barriers? And we can jump in.

Eloise Drane
Well, yes. And please, and I do want you to answer that. And I also wanted to make a point to have, you know, with organizations and private companies and so on, not maybe not necessarily on a yearly basis, but in a continuous basis, they’re always looking at the benefits. What benefits can we provide to our employees so that they want to stay so that they’re engaged so that they want to work for us? And you would think that it would be the same thing for the military. And also going to a point that Ellen also had made about right now is just more so on the Democratic side, and not on the Republican side, where and this is what definitely frustrates me about this country is everything has to be politicized. This shouldn’t be a political issue.

Ellen Gustafson
It shouldn’t be a political issue.

Eloise Drane
This should not be a political issue, whatsoever. It is black and white. They serve this country, to protect this country is the least that we could do.

Katy Hendrickson
Yeah, it’s great. I mean, you know, I’m glad we’re getting you fired up because I think Ellen and I spent, you know, 85% of our time at our top and our sort of, you know, level of, you know, getting excited. There’s a great article, it’s the right to serve, but not to carry. It’s really interesting that we’re sitting here with something that does attach itself to some stigma. I know in the military members we support this has been a silent problem. You know, it is hard to talk about fertility, it is hard to talk about your reproductive health, but Ellen and I are silenced no longer. This is an equity issue, an equality issue, inclusivity, it’s a diversity issue and all of those. This is the right time to look at it straight on head-on and get our arms around it and put it out to Congress and to the American people to support us in this change.

Ellen Gustafson
Well, yeah. Well, I was gonna say that there are the traditional barriers to legislation that covers comprehensive fertility and family building are the anti-choice movements conflating science with a conception of life, and then there’s definitely a sort of anti-LGBTQ element to the pushback on this, that of course, you know, we’re happy to talk about the fact that we have plenty of active duty LGBTQ members who are serving honorably for our country and doing that work on behalf of all of us. And so we are fully in favor of full Equality and Family building for all of those families. We have worked with a number of same-sex families who’ve been successful in family building in the military, and if you can imagine what the uphill battle for that is, and that people are still serving honorably, while still raising children. You know, we look at those people as doing, you know, obviously the same, not on not only the work that our partners are doing, but doing it with this additional burden, and, and still succeeding, which is incredible. But also, you know, we were two military spouses, trying desperately to have children. And when the anti-choice argument flies in my face, as someone who was just desperate to have a live birth, if you will, to use the medical term, it’s pretty rich. And I look forward to the day when we can maybe face that head-on, you know, with any congressional pushback, because I’m happy, again, to tell the story of being with my husband in a combat zone, and me, having a stillborn and being told that my medical option, which turns out was a great medical option would be the way to have children, but then being told no, that that wouldn’t be covered because of some ideologues view of what they want to, you know, call their congressperson about. It reminds us that what we need is the alternative voices that listen to this podcast, calling their Congresspeople and saying, why aren’t you supporting the military and family building?

Eloise Drane
Well, and it also reminds you that the people that are in the military, they’re human beings, and we are all born with the DNA makeup to want to procreate. It doesn’t matter if you’re military, it doesn’t matter if you’re part of the LGBT community, it doesn’t matter if you’re black, it doesn’t matter if you’re white, right? It is in our DNA makeup and the fact that you have to jump through hurdles to be able to do that. I mean, it’s absolutely ridiculous, not that I don’t mind you guys being on the podcast, obviously. But at the same time, that we have to have these conversations. And that, again, it goes back to being an issue where you know, one party is saying, Yes, let’s do this, and another party is saying no, so it’s just kind of really mind-boggling.

Katy Hendrickson
Well, you know, you said it so well, this shouldn’t be a political issue. And that really rests as the top line and the bottom line, Ellen speaks really well to this other topic and when you were, you know, mentioning DNA, you know, it’s interesting to be a military family and to recognize what that DNA is also, with respect to the oath of service. We, you know, statistically, the majority of military members come from military families. And so if we are not shaping and pushing to have a policy that supports a force of the future, right, to really look at the youngest cohorts of military service members today and say, we need to change this policy for them to have the families they want for tomorrow, we will actually be impacted, you know, our ability to look at having an all-volunteer force. My husband and I both come from military families. And we both, you know, have siblings that have served and married into military families. And that’s exactly that point. You know, if we’re limiting our military members from growing the families they want to grow. Where are we really looking at finding the future? Because you do grow up and you’re already sort of pre-aligned with the altruism and the concept that service is a natural part of perhaps your family’s principles.

Eloise Drane
Hmm. You know, going back to, you had already touched on it that there are only six military medical treatment facilities in the country that offer the full range of fertility procedures. And if a service member and their spouse are not located near one of these facilities, obviously they have to travel to wherever they are using their vacation time or requesting temporary duty at that location, what can someone do if they’re in that situation currently?

Katy Hendrickson
So that’s really really challenging and I think it’s worthwhile to say it’s not easy to get into those clinics. There are criteria and waitlists, and they also operate distinctly from each other. So each of those MTF ‘s has their own, they can shut down, they can change policy during COVID, many of them are closed then many reopened, only serving the active-duty military member before a spouse could be looked at. It’s also they’re looking at criteria that don’t really apply to the fertility marketplace. So there’s an age cutoff of 39, which, by the way, at 39, is when you definitely need access to fertility. So it’s ironic, there are requirements that you are married, again, looking at, you know, various different what is that really rooted in why would a single military member not have access to understanding their reproductive health or getting access to advanced reproductive care to become a parent, a solo parent, you know, there’s, there are things there that there’s no donor biology. So you, you must have possession of a uterus, you must be married to your source of sperm, those are not even in the least close to how the current fertility marketplace is functioning. So again, you know, as Ellen explained, these are derivatives of the fact that these clinics are contracted within our hospitals, so that they can remain teaching hospitals and keep that licensing and curriculum in place. So, but the desperation for the care of course that it’s subsidized, so an IVF cycle in town might cost $14,000 and your range out of pocket paid in front of the front, everything’s upfront in these clinics, is somewhere between eight or 10,000, that savings are a lot to the military member.

Eloise Drane
But the fact that it’s even that much, is just unreal. I mean, obviously, I can imagine one of the reasons why TRICARE doesn’t cover much is when it comes to fertility care is ultimately the perceived cost of care. Right? Yeah. You know what even goes to insurance as a whole about this perceived cost of, well, it’s fertility, and so it must be expensive, and so, therefore, we can’t afford to pay for it. But I feel like wouldn’t it be more cost-effective for family building to be covered for military families so that you can actually control more of that cost? As opposed to just assuming that it’s unreachable?

Ellen Gustafson
Right. Yeah. And I mean, the other side of all this is that unlike costs in any other sort of healthcare marketplace, companies consider retention as part of their cost-benefit analysis and the American public has to consider that times you know, times what I mean these are, these are highly trained people, you are not taking someone who has served when they were a young person for a couple of years, do their service, which is awesome, and we are so psyched to have anyone who joins the military, but those are not you know, those that big group, that big cohort of people who serve for you know, 5-10 years are not the population of people that’s then looking for advanced reproductive treatment. We’re talking about people who are serving both officers and enlisted people in our military who are serving for 10, 15, 20 years, and because of their service, potentially they found a partner later or they’ve been exposed to things that have made their fertility challenged or they’ve been flying so much that they can’t get pregnant while they’re flying and so they haven’t been able to have a baby yet and so we’re talking about populations of people who are our most valuable assets in the military who we most want to keep in the military because they are highly trained highly competent. And you know, even just to take women in that case we have a diversity challenge at the top. We have a pyramid process to getting to leadership and at every stage, people are cut from that process, and if you’re giving women more and more of a reason to get out because they cannot possibly manage to have a baby but you know becoming apparent and staying in the military then, of course, you’re not going to have women in senior leadership in the military. And so you know, we’re looking everyone loves to talk about how we want diversity in the military especially gender diversity and of course, all diversity you believe me we’re 100% supportive all diversity, but this is one area where gender diversity is intentionally limited because you’re not supporting these very widely available technologies to be accessed. by people who have already served for quite some time, and so are, of course, the ones that that that we motion want to give these benefits to.

Eloise Drane
Hmm. Well, and it also goes back to your point about, I don’t think that the vast majority of the citizens in this country really, really, if they don’t really understand the military, they know there’s branches, they know that they protect and serve the country, that’s probably where it ends. That’s probably where it ends, they don’t really know the intricacies of the military and how it works, and all the various things that go on. And quite frankly, until I met my husband, and he educated me about the process, I had no idea, I had no clue. So the vast majority don’t and probably the vast majority have no idea that none of this is covered. And especially if you’re not experiencing infertility, it’s not really a fore thought, right. It’s not something that you think about, it’s not something that is in your mind, it’s not really relevant to you. It’s like, okay, yeah, whatever, I have my kids, no big deal. No problem. Let me move on. But I want you guys to share to the masses of like, why is this so important for everybody, not just the military, for everybody to care about the fact that service members, their families, veterans would have the ability to be able to get assistance and not have to worry about, oh my god, I need an additional $10,000 to be able to try another round of IVF. And now I have to go and pay this 18% interest rate on our credit card in order to be able to do this.

Katy Hendrickson
That’s such a good question. Ellen, I’m gonna let you answer the body of that. But I really want to share with you that very early on in our critical thinking around that very question, why does this matter? Not just because of all the pain points, we’ve been already, but why does it matter to the public sector? And, Ellen, I firmly believe that getting our defense department having the military provide access and coverage for this essential care, it’s the changemaker. It is where right now, I think we only have 16 states that require insurance policies that are held in that state to provide coverage.

Eloise Drane
It’s 19 states. As of April of 2021, it’s 19.

Katy Hendrickson
That’s great. Yeah, we were tracking I think New York and you know, a few other states that were coming in right on the heels of that. So when we realize that this care is still not available for everyone, then we really said, well what is the role that the military has in this? And what we recognized is, it’s the domino that topples everyone else. So if we can look at changing our TRICARE policy, to be inclusive of treatment, without the need for a diagnosis, which limits many it would limit Ellen and me, it limits our same-sex members. We want access to reproductive health care, period, and if we can look at the military, providing that care and coverage, then what changes next is the federal government after that, it’s the Affordable Care Act after that. It’s every state that follows behind that, and looking at this as really the standard of care, right?

Ellen Gustafson
Yeah. Yeah. And I also will say that the American public, I think, even though the sort of intricacies of military life is not widely known because the military is such a small portion of the population, a lot of people really do support the military a lot of people have veterans and their families but there’s a big chunk of the population who has some connection to a veteran or grandfather, somebody. And I think most people can wrap their mind around the idea that if you’re a military family and you either the mom or the dad is military, and you have a very unpredictable schedule we should offer some sort of childcare. I mean people agree that your life is a little crazy and we’re asking you to just get up and leave sometimes then childcare is covered okay. That’s when the housing I mean, there’s, there’s a ton of military housing that’s covered, there are programs to ensure that military families can’t get kicked out of their housing so you know, if you all of a sudden, or that they can leave their housing on a dime. So like, for example, if you have to move very quickly, instead of having to oh, that rent, you know, military members have. So there’s a lot of things that the American public does actually do that really support military readiness and military family life, right. So we have supermarkets, we have there are all these special things, right? And no one questions those things. If they do, the explanation that looks, military life is really challenging. Let’s make this little part of it a little bit easier. The vast majority of the American public totally gets behind that, which is really cool. And here is a gaping hole in your readiness, your ability to serve, look, when you’re a person deployed overseas and, and your spouse back home, is now unable to continue trying to have a baby. Because if you did continue without your partner, you’d have to pay out of pocket and it’s too much to pay for, that’s a pretty big thing to carry around weighing on your mind when you’re trying to do your job deployed overseas. If you are, you know, a military family member who is just at the point of being able to adopt a child, and then oh, my God, we have to move on, we have to start back at zero again, or you’ve made embryos and you have to move across the country and those embryos are gonna stay back there, or you’re in the middle of some sort of IU II and all of a sudden you have to move and you can’t. That is really going to hurt your ability to focus on your job and, and serve in the way that we need our military to serve. And so every time I say this to any member of any citizen of our country is so obvious to the citizenry, that this level of challenge is an insane burden for our members who are choosing to serve to carry and yet somehow the conversation goes back to what will somehow cost the taxpayer dollar. Well, yeah, you know, at some point, it might require a change in the way we look at military spending in some slight way. But it will save us, in the end, to continue with a volunteer force and keep this incredible talent that we have serving instead of out flying for a civilian airline instead of flying off an aircraft carrier for our security.

Eloise Drane
Yeah, and let’s remember, like, the military, they’re actually human beings, you know, so they, they breathe, they feel, they do everything as any other human does.

Ellen Gustafson
Well, you know, it’s funny, the American public loves to see the homecoming story. They love those videos. I mean, every single person listening to this podcast has seen a video of a dad or mom showing up at the school, and the kid doesn’t know they’re showing up and everyone’s crying. And you just hope the kid runs to you instead of running away, because sometimes that does happen. But everyone, I mean, America loves that, we watch that all the time, America’s love in the stories right now of the US soldiers in Afghanistan, holding those babies that are being put over the fence. America loves the story. But what you don’t forget is does that man or woman in uniform holding that baby, are they struggling with having their own baby at home? Is that breaking their heart? Are they missing their baby at home? Yeah, if they have one they’re missing them. Is there a homecoming story where while the husband was away, like in my case, the woman lost the pregnancy and now isn’t pregnant anymore? I mean, that’s the thing where we want the American public to remember that for every homecoming story, there’s probably a story of a lot of pain and a lot of loss that you’re not seeing. And that’s why we believe that the American citizens do want to step up and support the military in this process.

Katy Hendrickson
Yeah, we say, you know, no one’s coming in the door from a deployment rushing in to read their constitution. They’re looking to be reunited with their family. That is the number one focus of anyone returning home. And so family, you know, Ellen and I are, you know, committed to defining that very broadly. But to think that the military member doesn’t have access to support for that, building that family in any shape or form that isn’t conventional and, and easily done through a coital reproduction, you know, there’s something terribly outdated about them. And we’ve spent a lot of time talking about reproduction but of course, in the world of adoption, and Ellen, Ellen has, as mentioned this, and in many of her comments, you know, the hardship there is, is equally as terrific just as much do it yourself. You’re completely on your own, there is a very, very, very small credit that you can file for once you’ve completed a successful adoption but it is a fraction of the cost of adoption to most military members. There are some great statistics that really look at the next generation’s interest in family building. And, and there is a great interest in adoption as the way in which same-sex marriages build families. So we really need to revisit this and build upon this platform and really support the military member in all facets. I think it’s interesting, as Ellen mentioned, we’ve got home loans and we have pre-tax returns, support in so many other areas of our life, but try your hardest to go on base and find a single workshop. A single source where people are being invited to come together— military married members and share knowledge and resources. We use all sorts of different ways in which education is brought out to the military member and you know at the inception of our nonprofit Ellen and I scoured you know the websites for, is anyone hosting anything like this and the answer was there was nothing.

Eloise Drane
I can’t thank you guys enough for what you’re doing. Are there any final words that you would like to share?

Ellen Gustafson
Well we would love to invite everyone especially interested and passionate citizens who hear this to follow us on all social media platforms. We are @buildingmilfams on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. And we are targeting obviously the awareness of military members to know that we exist and to we’re out there, we’re actively trying to make change and advocacy and we’re trying to stand up and start programs that help military members today. So if you have a company, or you have a fertility business, or you’re a donor interested in anything fertility-related, we would love the support. We’re militaryfamilybuilding.org. And so I think, you know, there are so many ways that we believe that citizens can help us help the military and that once that change happens, as Katie explained, the military will then really help the civilian world because once the policy changes to really open this care up for military families, we believe that that will help really grow the space and for all citizens. And that will make care better for everyone. The military has a history of doing that, when military care goes into a certain area it rapidly innovates and makes care better for the rest of the citizens. So we really believe that that will happen in the fertility space too. So you know, as much as this could be an area where it’s your, your philanthropy and your kind heart that supports the troops, we think that there’s a lot of benefit to that to the whole population, and especially the whole community of family building, once the military does get this care and coverage.

Katy Hendrickson
And I would say, you know, on that, on that note, you know, thank you so much for having us as your guests, for advocating with us, for being in this fight with us side by side. We use a phrase that we can move out at the speed of trust. And that’s most definitely felt in our setting with you. And so, you know, thank you for having us, giving us a chance to share our passion, our knowledge, and our advocacy for family building with the military.

Eloise Drane
Well, thank you for joining me today and in all the information that you shared, I’ll definitely be adding that into our show notes. But I mean, this is definitely something that needs to be discussed. It needs to be talked about, but more than just discussing it and more than just talking about it because I think that’s what we love to do in this country. We just talk and discuss, then nothing gets done. Something needs to get done. There’s enough talk, there’s enough discussion. Let’s actually pull the trigger and actually get something finished and accomplished so thank you ladies for joining me today. I so appreciate your time. And again and I’ll be sure to add all of your information in our show notes so that the guests can also go out there and support you too.

Kay Hendrickson
Thank you so much for having us.

Ellen Gustafson
Our pleasure being here.

Eloise Drane
I hope you found this discussion helpful as you were your next steps. We would love for you to rate us so if you haven’t yet, go to your listening platform of choice and subscribe rate and review this podcast. Five-star reviews are our favorites. You can follow fertility cafe on its Instagram and Facebook channel Family Inceptions. We’d also love you to share Fertility Café with friends and family members who would benefit from the information shared. Join us next week for another conversation on modern family building. Thank you so much for joining me today. Remember, love has no limits, neither should parenthood.

Outro
Thank you for joining us in the fertility cafe. Whether you’re an intended parent, a woman considering egg donation, thinking of becoming a surrogate yourself, or a friend or family member of someone dealing with infertility, we’re here to help. Visit our website thefertilitycafe.com for resources on fertility, alternative family building, and making this journey your own.

Find us on Instagram
Find us on Facebook
Leave us a review on iTunes

Listen to this episode here.

Share

Subscribe
now

By entering your email, you agree to our Terms of Service + Privacy Policy, including receipt of emails and promotions. You can unsubscribe at any time.