The UK's Independent on Sunday (IoS) says that 'a generation of women is being denied the chance to give birth', following an investigation that shows that provision of IVF services in the UK remains a 'postcode lottery'. The newspaper revealed that only 40 per cent of the nation's PCTs are currently offering NHS-funded IVF treatment, a year after every PCT was meant to offer all eligible couples at least one free cycle. The IoS says that 'ministers are failing to enforce their pledge'.
The IoS also found that many PCTs are denying or heavily restricting access to IVF - for example by providing it only to women in their late thirties who have never previously paid privately for fertility services. In reaction to the findings, MPs on the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Infertility (APPGI) have demanded that Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Health, takes action to ensure that all PCTs in England and Wales provide at least one free IVF cycle to all infertile couples. But a spokesman from the Department of Health said that it was up to PCTs to 'make their own decisions about which treatments to fund'.
Health ministers in the UK had recommended that all health authorities should follow guidance issued by the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). NICE recommended, in February 2004, that three cycles of IVF should be offered to all infertile couples, subject to certain clinical criteria, to end the 'postcode lottery' of provision. Shortly afterwards, the then health secretary, Sir John Reid, announced that all infertile couples where the woman was aged between 23 and 39, and fitting certain other additional criteria - including having no other children living with them - should be given just one free cycle of IVF on the NHS from April 2005, with a view to increasing provision further in time.
However, last November, a study of PCTs showed that at least 23 were not providing any NHS-funded fertility treatment by the April 2005 deadline. Eighteen others were only offering IVF under 'exceptional circumstances' and many others were denying treatment to women in their late thirties. Earlier, in September 2005, research published by the UK's Audit Commission showed that a 'postcode lottery' still exists in many aspects of the provision of medical services, including the provision of fertility treatment on the NHS. The report suggested that the problems continue to exist because of poor planning and financial management in the NHS. Another example of the continued 'postcode lottery' came to light in July 2005, when ten PCTs in the county of Hampshire were shown to be refusing to fund IVF treatments, despite the Government's promises. They said that, because of limited funding, IVF treatment in the county has to be a low priority.
Clare Brown, chief executive of Infertility Network UK said that the ongoing 'postcode lottery' in IVF is 'absurd'. 'I can't see the point in the Government referring something to NICE for national guidelines', she said, adding 'when they come in they are not worth the paper they are written on - they need to do something to make these guidelines mandatory'.