Paralyzed Army veteran Gene Laureano cried when he first walked again with robotic legs at a New York clinic as part of research sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs. But when the study ended, so did his ability to walk.
Now he may get the chance to walk everyday: The VA has agreed to pay for the powered exoskeleton for eligible paralyzed veterans with spinal cord injuries — marking the first national coverage policy for robotic legs in the United States.
Veterans have been petitioning the VA to do this because many cannot afford the $77,000 needed to pay for the device called the ReWalk. The electronic leg braces were approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2014 for individuals to use at home. VA officials told The Associated Press that that the agency sent a memorandum Dec. 10 outlining its plans to train staff to be able to provide the ReWalk.
News of the VA's decision sent shares for ReWalk Robotics up over 100 percent Thursday. Sales have been sluggish since the FDA approval of the system, with few private insurers agreeing to cover it. Most of the 36 individuals who bought the ReWalk in the United States so far paid for it through fund-raising or out of pocket.
But the company hopes the VA's policy will prompt more private insurers to follow suit.
''The VA is leading the world with this,'' CEO Larry ReWalk Robotics said. ''It's fabulous. It really gives individuals a much better life, and makes them much healthier to be able to walk again.''
The company said it has evaluated 45 paralyzed veterans who meet height and weight needs for the technology — which consists of leg braces with motion sensors and motorized joints that respond to changes in upper-body movement and shifts in balance.
Laureano, 53, is praying his application will go through soon. The former Army corporal remembers the day he first tried the ReWalk at New York's James J. Peters VA Medical Center in the Bronx two years ago.
''The tears came down,'' said Laureano, 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,'' he added.
The ReWalk was invented by Israeli entrepreneur Amit Goffer, who was paralyzed in an accident in 1997. Several competing products that use similar technology — nicknamed ''electronic legs"— are also being tested in US rehab hospitals.
None, including the ReWalk, are fast enough or can be worn long enough to replace wheelchairs.