Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme after news that Bedfordshire CCG had deferred a decision to cut funding for IVF, Sarah Norcross co-chair of Fertility Fairness and director of the Progress Educational Trust, which publishes BioNews, said that IVF is often first in line when CCGs are looking for areas where budget cuts can be introduced.
'It seems a soft option for them to take – to reduce the number of cycles. The NHS treats many, many conditions which are not life saving and IVF is one of those. It's a proven cost- and clinically effective treatment and it's been recognised as that twice by NICE now,' she said.
Norcross highlighted that restrictions on NHS funding could also lead to more couples seeking treatment overseas, where IVF can be cheaper but patients may be at risk from more lenient rules, including fewer constraints on implanting more than one embryo which increases the chance of having a multiple birth.
Multiple births present health risks for both mother and child, and babies born following a multiple pregnancy could therefore have a greater need for intensive care treatment, thereby also leading to more costs, said Norcross.
Guidelines issued by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which makes evidence-based recommendations for healthcare provided on the NHS in England, advise that women under the age of 40 who fulfil the required criteria should be offered three cycles of NHS-funded IVF treatment.
However, this level of funding is not always offered to the couples seeking help to conceive, with only one in five CCGs in England offering the full three cycles of IVF. Scotland, where all health boards must follow the same criteria, is planning to expand its provision of IVF to three cycles from next year (see BioNews 855).
According to Fertility Fairness, the percentage of couples in England offered the full three rounds of treatment has fallen from 24 percent in 2013 to 17 percent last year.
Dr Amanda Doyle, co-chair of the NHS Clinical Commissioners, told The Telegraph: 'Wherever possible we want to give them [the patients] what they need, including fertility treatment. Unfortunately, the NHS does not have unlimited resources and ensuring patients get the best possible care against a backdrop of increasingly squeezed finances is one of the biggest issues CCGs face.'
IVF is currently at the same level of funding as it was in 2004 when the first NICE guideline was introduced.
'The picture is looking bleak and I'm deeply concerned on behalf of fertility patients that there is a sustained disinvestment in fertility treatment. I would urge the Government to take action to turn this around,' Norcross told The Telegraph.
Meanwhile, Ipswich and East Suffolk CCG is expected to shortly announce the outcome of a consultation on its proposals to cut IVF.