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It is estimated that one in eight couples experience problems in attempting to have children and many suffer psychological and emotional distress as a result of their infertility.
For many childless couples, the only hope of conception lies in treatment free of charge under the NHS. But couples living in Newcastle are currently missing out on access to free IVF (in vitro fertilisation) services.
This is because North Staffordshire Primary Care Trust, which is responsible for commissioning fertility services, is one of only three PCTs nationally which do not provide at least one free cycle of IVF.
This is in breach of national guidance. The regulator The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends that PCTs pay for at least one cycle of IVF, with a view to raising this to three cycles.
Within the NHS, however, PCTs have the power to decide local priorities and this guidance in not mandatory. While the vast majority do follow it - including Stoke-on-Trent and South Cheshire right next door to us - sadly, so far North Staffordshire PCT has decided it has other priorities.
Paul has been campaigning to end this unfairness, which discriminates not only between areas, but also against couples who cannot afford to pay privately. He wants local health chiefs to implement the NICE guidelines in full, starting with at least one free cycle of IVF.
Currently, the only ‘exception’ the PCT has granted is for women under 35, who are in a relationship, have no children and who have cancer. Paul thinks this is unreasonably restrictive and is pressing for more flexibility immediately - in cases, for example, where medical conditions mean that constituents, sadly, have only a limited time in which to conceive.
Challenging the barriers to funding
Paul has written to NHS North Staffordshire challenging its refusal to fund IVF treatment and arguing that its present policy is unfair and discriminatory when compared to levels of provision enjoyed elsewhere.
“There is currently a real unfairness which is working to the disadvantage of local couples who simply cannot afford to pay privately for IVF treatment,” said Paul.
“NHS North Staffordshire is out of line with virtually every other health trust in the country and its current refusal to fund this treatment is unfair and unsustainable,” he said.
Paul is pursuing requests and appeals from individual constituents whose clear clinical need for fertilisation services would have allowed them free treatment if they had lived in other parts of the country.
He has also campaigned through articles in the media to highlight the injustice of the present system.
As part of his efforts to encourage equal access to IVF funding, Paul has met with the chief executive and chairman of the PCT, has liaised with GPs and consultants and recently met in parliament with Clare Lewis-Jones, Chair of the National Infertility Awareness Campaign and lobbying organisation Infertility UK.
Recently, as part of its ‘prioritisation process’, the PCT confirmed its policy would stay. From July, 2009, however, it has agreed to change the wording from ‘under no circumstances’ to ‘not routinely fund’.
Paul is pressing the PCT on the practical significance of this change for local couples.
The PCT has also said it is reviewing the exceptions it makes and Paul has asked for details of the options being considered – again to see what difference this might make to couples desperate for treatment now.
Paul is also assisting with appeals in cases where applications for funding on an ‘exceptional basis’ have been turned down.
As part of this, he is raising wider concerns - based on experience of other treatments which have been denied – about the so-called ‘exceptionality’ (or Individual Funding Request – IFR) policy and the way it has been operated and supervised at the PCT.
More generally, for the next annual review of PCT priorities for 2010-11, it would be helpful if constituents who agree with Paul write to him – and complete the poll on this website – so he can use everyone’s views. pressing them to do so,” added Paul.