VA’s new policy on robotic legs to help more paralyzed vets walk

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced it will pay for robotic legs that could help many paralyzed veterans who have spinal cord injuries walk again.

ReWalk Robotics makes electronic leg braces with motion sensors and motorized joints that allow individuals to stand upright and walk. The company said the VA’s decision means that injured veterans can be considered for a personal unit after they receive training at centers around the country. A dozen VA facilities are expected to start training staff to provide the system.

The measure marks the nation’s first federal coverage policy for devices such as the ReWalk, which are often expensive. Veterans have been calling for the VA to take action as many are unable to afford the $77,000 price tag. Most of the 36 veterans who bought the device paid for it out of pocket or via fundraising. However, the company hopes the VA’s policy will lead to more private insurers covering the device.

“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,” said Dr. Ann Spungen, who led VA research on the system.

However, the device makers must overcome another hurdle. Only a fraction of the country’s 42,000 paralyzed veterans are eligible for a wearable exoskeleton as it has set weight and height requirements. The system also works for paraplegics but not for quadriplegics.

Although VA pilot studies have noted improved sleep, reduced back pain and other health benefits among paraplegics who used the ReWalk, the exoskeleton and other competing devices are not fast enough or can be worn long enough to replace wheelchairs.

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