A report has revealed that couples receive varied IVF treatment across UK PCTs, despite guidelines issued by the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence in 2004 that all women between the age of 23 and 39 years old should receive three cycles of IVF on the NHS.
Grant Shapps, Conservative MP for Welwyn Hatfield and father of three children born following IVF treatment, conducted the study that revealed the continuing 'postcode lottery' in NHS treatment.
Mr Shapps received a response to his inquiries from three quarters of England's PCTs. He found that at least two PCTs had stopped offering fertility treatment this year due to lack of funds. Some PCTs had introduced varying age restrictions with disagreements over whether a woman over 35 was too old or too young to receive IVF. Some PCTs also offered free IVF even if either partner had already had a child, but NICE guidelines state that childless couples should be the priority.
Mr Shapps has criticised the widespread variation in treatment as determining who has the right to a child and who has not on the basis of PCT's budgets and deficits. Mr Shapps said that, 'Couples are effectively being told that they cannot have a baby while their friends on the other side of the street, who might have a similar set of circumstances, are able to obtain three cycles of IVF provided for them by the NHS'.
Health Minister Caroline Flint emphasised the importance of access to IVF for childless couples regardless of where they lived, but said that the NICE guidelines were just one of the considerations that the PCT had to take into account when deciding on which services to provide locally. When the NICE guidelines were issued in 2004, John Reid, the then health secretary, said that by April 2005 he wanted 'all PCTs, including those who at present provide no IVF treatment, to offer at least one full cycle of treatment to all those eligible. In the longer term I would expect the NHS to make progress towards full implementation of the NICE guidance'.
Dr Mike Dixon, chairman of the NHS Alliance, which represents PCTs, said that he thought it was better that care provisions were determined locally, but warned that when money was short decisions would have to be made as to what was a crucial priority, such as a life saving operation. Infertility Network UK urged the government to consult with all involved with a view to implementing the full NICE guidelines to overcome the regional inequalities.
Around 1.7 million couples suffer fertility problems, and around 10,000 babies a year are born as a result of IVF.