Women across Britain are being denied fertility treatment because NHS chiefs are trying to cut costs, a watchdog warns today.
Thousands of couples struggling to conceive are subjected to unfair postcode lotteries, causing “widespread inequality”, with many resorting to costly private care because NHS provision is so patchy, campaigners say.
Couples in the Vale of York are the only ones in England facing a blanket ban on access but availability varies across the region with only one IVF cycle available in the majority of areas rising to three cycles in some cases in Hull and North East Lincolnshire.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) today says fewer than one in five clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) are paying for the full three cycles recommended.
Prof Gillian Leng, deputy chief executive at Nice, said: “Infertility can have a potentially devastating effect on people’s lives - it can cause significant distress, depression and possibly lead to the breakdown of relationships. It is unacceptable that parts of England are choosing to ignore Nice recommendations for treating infertility. This perpetuates a postcode lottery and creates inequalities in healthcare across the country.
“We understand that the NHS is under financial constraints, but fertility is a core NHS service.”
Nice guidelines say the NHS should provide three full cycles of IVF treatment for women aged 18- 40 who have failed to get pregnant after two years of trying.
The warning comes as Nice issues a quality standard reminding health chiefs IVF is a core part of NHS services and should not depend on where people live.
Susan Seenan, chief executive of Infertility Network UK, said: “It is totally unacceptable that 10 years on from the initial Nice recommendations, access to fertility treatment still depends entirely on where you live. Patients are still suffering as a result of clinical commissioning groups ignoring national guidance and cutting services.”
Anna Bradley, chairwoman of Healthwatch England, said: “Fertility issues are a particularly emotive subject and it should be a basic right of couples from Bradford to Bedfordshire, or wherever they live, to be able to access the same level of care and support on the NHS.”
British Fertility Society chairman Allan Pacey, of Sheffield University, said: “By cherry-picking aspects of guidelines to fund services of their choice, local commissioners fly in the face of what Nice is all about. Their guidelines must be taken as a whole if we are to deliver the best and most cost-effective use of NHS resources.”
Around half of CCGs only offer one IVF cycle to eligible couples.
A Vale of York CCG spokeswoman said funding IVF services could cost up to £2 million.
She added: “It is hoped that the current non-commissioning of IVF will be a temporary position.”