When Ashley Sheffield was told the first time that her insurance wouldn’t cover in-vitro fertilization, the answer could’ve been simple: get married. That was one of the requirements for individuals to get the fertility treatment covered under the Department of Veterans Affairs’ insurance.

So, the Air Force veteran and her partner had a backyard wedding — in a “beautiful meadow” — and applied again. Then the second denial came.

“You are not qualified if your [sic] in a same sex marriage or if the sperm is donated from someone other than a male spouse. I am sorry,” her case manager at VA wrote to her in 2021, according to court filings.

“I was pretty shocked,” Sheffield recalled to GBH News. “‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was repealed well over 10 years ago.”

Late last month, Sheffield settled her lawsuit against the department, which covered her fertility treatment costs as part of the agreement.

Now, the department is changing its policy following Sheffield’s lawsuit and another out of New York filed by the National Organization for Women-New York City. The policy had set out specific requirements for the individual seeking IVF: have an injury connected to their military service that affects their fertility, be married, and be able to produce the necessary sperm and eggs within their marriage.

To Sheffield, that policy seemed like “blatant discrimination.” She met the first two requirements but could not meet the final criterion within her same-sex marriage. So she found a lawyer and started paying for IVF out of pocket.

Last August, she filed the lawsuit. And in November, she gave birth to her daughter.

“Now that I have a healthy baby, I mean, this is very much a part of her birth story,” Sheffield said. “And I hope that when she’s older, she looks back and she’s proud of what we went through. And I also hope that maybe, if she’s ever faced with anything that's just not right or fair or unjust, that she feels motivated to stand up and fight — not only for herself, but for those that can’t.”

The settlement covers both her legal fees and the nearly $40,000 Sheffield and her wife paid for fertility treatments. It does not include any admission of culpability or discrimination by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

With the VA — as well as the Department of Defense — now changing their policies, soon, veterans will be able to use donor sperm or eggs when they get IVF, which will affect more than just same-sex couples. The departments are also lifting the requirement to get married.

A woman in camo pants stands on a jet with her arms crossed.
Ashley Sheffield served in the Air Force for nearly 20 years before she medically retired in 2021.
Courtesy of Ashley Sheffield

One significant requirement to access IVF benefits is still standing: that a person’s infertility be caused by an injury during their military service. In an effort to lift that criterion, Renée Mihail is working on the other lawsuit at the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic, filed by NOW-NYC.

“For most people, that is the biggest barrier to care and relief,” Mihail told GBH News. “It is obviously great that they have dropped the marriage requirement and the ban on donor gametes, but with the infertility-causation requirement still in place, it’s almost impossible for people to get care because it's so hard to prove one's cause of their infertility.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs said it cannot comment on pending litigation, but Press Secretary Terrence Hayes wrote in a statement that “VA is committed to helping as many Veterans as possible raise a family.”

Sheffield, for her part, feels like she “won the jackpot.”

“I’m really happy that the policy has changed, and others that were going through my situation will now be able to receive the benefits,” Sheffield said. “Because anyone that’s ever been through IVF knows how exhausting it is, and so this is just one thing off their plate. And the veterans deserve to be taken care of.”