Eligible veterans with spinal cord injuries may soon be able to walk again.
The Department of Veterans Affairs will now pay for robotic leg devices for eligible paralyzed veterans, VA officials tell The Associated Press.
Dr. Ann Spungen, who led VA research on the device, told AP that the announcement represents a major shift in policy:
"The research support and effort to provide eligible veterans with paralysis an exoskeleton for home use is a historic move on the part of the VA because it represents a paradigm shift in the approach to rehabilitation for persons with paralysis."
Previously, the $77,000 cost of the device was prohibitively expensive for many injured veterans.
This video from ReWalk, the company that developed and manufactured the robotic legs, shows how its "wearable robotic exoskeleton" works:
The system allows people to stand upright and walk, and uses "wearable brace support, a computer-based control system and motion sensors," ReWalk says in a statement. The FDA approved the system in 2014 for home use.
ReWalk says that the VA's decision means that veterans with spinal cord injuries can seek referral and evaluation at training centers around the country. Once an individual receives training, they'll be considered for a personal unit to use outside the center.
"The policy outlines a sound process to educate, train and importantly, to provide individual veterans with a ReWalk Personal device so that they may walk at home and in the community," says ReWalk CEO Larry Jasinski in the press release from the company. "We expect this landmark national policy will substantially improve the health and quality of life of many veterans in the years ahead."
But for most paralyzed veterans, there are more than just financial obstacles. NPR's Amy Held reported for our Newscast unit that the ReWalk "only works for certain paraplegics who meet height and weight requirements." That's only a fraction of the tens of thousands of paralyzed vets, she says.
A ReWalk representative tells Held that the company has so far determined that 45 paralyzed veterans meet the criteria for the device and have begun the process of seeking enrollment in the program.
AP spoke with Gene Laureano, a 53-year-old veteran who was part of a study on the robotic legs. Now, he's eagerly waiting for a response on his application for the system—and describes how much it meant to him during the study.
" 'The tears came down,' said Laureano, who was left paralyzed five years ago after falling off a ladder. 'I hadn't spoken to somebody standing up in so long.'
" 'I just kept remembering the doctor told me it was impossible for me to walk, and then I crossed that threshold from the impossible to the possible.' "