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CCG leaders back IVF age restriction subject to legal challenge

Exclusive: CCG leaders have left themselves open to legal action after they backed controversial age restrictions on fertility treatment that go further than NICE guidelines and are currently the subject of a legal case being prepared by lawyers.

The rationing decision by Slough CCG to retain the PCT’s policy of limiting access to IVF treatment to women aged 35 years and over has left them open to being named in pending legal action over the restrictions.

The shadow CCG board met last week to consider the South Central SHA cluster policy that IVF treatment should not be offered in women aged 35 years or older.

NICE guidelines currently recommend that fertility treatment should be available to women between the ages of 23 and 39 years.

The board met after a couple from Slough launched legal action against the health secretary Jeremy Hunt and NHS Berkshire under age discrimination legislation after the health authority refused IVF treatment because the female was older than 35.

The test case will be the first to challenge NHS rationing decisions on the basis of age and could set a precedent for future action against CCGs.

A spokesperson for the CCG told Pulse: ‘The members received an update on current NICE guidelines for IVF at the meeting on Tuesday (18 December). There has been no change of policy.’

A spokesperson for NHS Berkshire said: ‘We can confirm that our solicitors are in receipt of a letter relating to this case and we are in the process of considering its contents. It would be inappropriate for NHS Berkshire East PCT to comment further in advance of responding directly to the patient’s solicitors.’

Clare Lewis-Jones, chief executive of Infertility Network UK, said the policy of Slough CCG and the South Central SHA cluster amounted to ‘out and out rationing’.

She told Pulse: ‘This case is very important. If the couple win and the CCG have to open up the age range to 23 to 39 years, it means they do have to do what the NICE guidelines say and that other couples outside that age range will have a chance.’

However, Dr Sarah Jarvis, the RCGP’s spokesperson on women’s health, said it was concerning that patients are suing health authorities over funding decisions.

She told Pulse: ‘I have some sympathy with the couple but I think we have to accept that unfortunately we live in hard financial times and difficult decisions have to be made. We have to acknowledge that CCGs are in a difficult position and they have to make difficult funding decisions.

‘The idea that patients can sue CCGs at the cost of tens of thousands of pounds fills me with horror because the money spent defending this would be better spent on the NHS.’  

Dr Charles Alessi, chair of the National Association of Primary Care, said: ‘CCGs have a duty to do their best to manage healthcare for their population within the resources available. This will mean that prioritisation for resources will vary depending in needs for individual populations. This is healthy, as long as the aspirations of individual populations are reflected correctly.’