NHS West Kent PCT has suspended IVF treatments considered non-urgent until April 2011. The measure is aimed at avoiding a projected overspend of approximately £40m on the PCT's budget of £1.013 billion, within the first six months of the coming year.
Marion Dinwoodie, NHS West Kent's Chief Executive said: 'No-one with a compelling clinical need for treatment this year will miss out, but we are asking GPs to consider if referrals for treatment like gender reassignment or IVF can be delayed until next year'.
On the potential impact of the PCT's decision, fertility specialist Dr Michael Rimington commented: 'It will be very worrying because these couples will already have been trying for pregnancy for some time and then plucked up the courage to see their family doctor to consider assessment and referral, and then they will be told that they cannot be referred at this stage'.
As well as the decision to suspend non-urgent IVF treatments, NHS West Kent PCT has also asked GPs to defer referrals for non-urgent surgical procedures in cases of obesity and gender reassignment, and will begin prescribing a cheaper drug for age-related macular degeneration.
Chairman of the British Medical Association's consultative committee, Dr Mark Porter said: 'Our concern is that we are seeing financial matters being more important than clinical matters in the NHS'.
West Kent PCT is not the first to place restrictions on what they consider non-urgent procedures. Recently, NHS Warwickshire announced that no IVF treatments, orthopaedic surgery, and other procedures considered low priority, would go ahead without clearance from management. 'This is not about medical need, this is really about saving money', said Dr Porter.
The Guardian last month reported Nigel Edwards of the NHS Confederation as saying: 'Just shutting a service for a month or two is a one-off saving. I have had a series of discussions with four or five trusts now where they are thinking of a significant reshaping of the system'.
The NHS West Kent PCT's decision is to be reviewed in April 2011.