Exclusive NHS managers have sharply cut the number of IVF cycles they are funding this financial year, as they opt to ration the treatment even in the face of steadily increasing demand, a Pulse investigation reveals.
The average number of IVF cycles funded per month by PCTs so far in 2011/12 is running 13.8% behind the average rate for the whole of last year, responses gathered from 29 trusts under the Freedom of Information Act reveal.
The number of cycles of IVF funded on the NHS fell from 92.3 per PCT in 2010/11 to 79.5 pro rata per PCT in 2011/12. It is possible the reduction over the entire financial year could end up being even more severe, as PCTs often tighten purse strings and ration more strictly as the end of the financial year approaches.
The findings come despite rising demand for treatment. Figures from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority show the number of cycles of IVF or ICSI fertility treatment provided rose by 30% between 2006 and 2010, but only a minority of these were provided by the NHS, with 60% funded by patients.
Dr Richard Vautrey, GPC deputy chair, warned availability of IVF on the NHS was likely to continue to fall: ‘There continues to be a demand for IVF from couples but there's a mismatch between patients' expectations and resources available.'
NHS Warrington has only funded seven requests for IVF in the first six months of 2011/12 compared with 79 last year. Last August it controversially decided to withdraw funding for IVF except in exceptional cases. A review last July decided the no-funding policy should remain in place for another 12 months.
Dr Andrew Davies, chair of Warrington Health Consortium and a GP in Warrington, said: ‘While we fully understand infertility is a condition which causes great distress to couples it does not affect general physical health or life expectancy.'
Other PCTs have reduced spending while denying they have changed eligibility criteria. NHS Stoke-on-Trent funded 27 requests in the first nine months of the year compared with 80 in 2010/11. A spokesperson said: ‘There is no specific reason why there appear to be less referrals - in the last month the figures have increased.'
Dr Sarah Jarvis, a GP in Hammersmith, west London, and former RCGP spokesperson on women's health, said: ‘GPs now have to adhere to strict policies whereas they might have allowed a certain amount of leeway in the past. The issue is funding, but even if we come out of recession I imagine people will consider therapeutics for diseases such as cancer more important than IVF.'