IVF: New Decade, New Deal, New Hope

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There are a lot of positive aspects to the New Decade New Approach deal that has seen power sharing restored to Stormont after a three year absence writes Kevin McAteer.

One of the important strands of hope for many childless couples in my opinion is the funding of three cycles of IVF treatment being made available by the Executive.

New Health Minister Robin Swann said: “I am pleased that the New Decade, New Approach Agreement has committed to providing three funded IVF cycles for eligible women. However, the Regional Fertility Centre currently does not have the capacity to offer three cycles of treatment to eligible women.

“There are not enough trained staff to carry out the procedures, nor is there enough space at the premises to facilitate a higher number of patients. Significant additional funding will also be required and, as with other New Decade New Approach commitments, and this will be an issue for the Executive to take forward collectively.

“I am establishing a working group to give urgent consideration to how this issue can be taken forward and, as such, I am unable to give a definitive implementation date or clarify any other detail of future service provision at this stage.”

As the public sector fails to meet the needs for families facing fertility problems, IVF treatment in the private sector can cost £8000 to complete. This can be a devastating obstacle to overcome for low income families.

However place yourself in the position of being a working class couple in a working class community just managing to put bread on the table… with a couple holding down two jobs, just about paying bills, keeping your head above water with the cost of living creeping up.

With wages stagnating, rents increasing and faith in government being eroded, it is not that easy to find £8000 for fertility treatment. Working class communities are reliant on the NHS for many essential services, and independent, private medical care is expensive. Unless you have a a well paid job to afford health insurance then working class people are at the end of the queue for help with privately funded IVF. This is where the Northern Ireland Executive comes in. To say this New Decade New Approach deal is the start of some hope for couples is a gross understatement.

Alliance Party representative for Newry and Armagh Jackie Coade said:

“The Alliance Party welcomed the commitment in the New Decade, New Approach document, not just for the very practical aspect of it but because it provides an opportunity for the issue of infertility and difficulties with conceiving to be debated in a public forum. We have to work towards removing the taboo that women feel and face when they cannot have children.

“To make this commitment a reality, there must be adequate funding, and the Regional Fertility Clinic must be properly resourced and have adequate capacity to reflect the demand, especially for other programmes.”

IVF is a stressful and overwhelming experience that is an emotional rollercoaster testing couples both physically and mentally. With the amazing end result of a beautiful baby it is no doubt that IVF is an experience well worth the rollercoaster ride. Finding the funding for IVF in the private sector is an aspect of IVF that many couples don’t need, and to commit itself and offer hope to childless couples was something of a coup for the Northern Ireland Executive who have been trying to sell their new agreement to the public.

South Down Sinn Fein MLA Sinead Ennis has said: “Funding should be made available for three funded cycles of IVF treatment for couples in the North.  

“This is a very sensitive and emotive issue and can be very stressful for many people trying to start a family.  Sinn Fein is committed to improving access to IVF treatment for the many couples out there desperately seeking treatment. I was pleased that the motion brought by my party colleagues Colm Gildernew and Karen Mullan on providing three full cycles of IVF was passed in the Assembly with all-party support.

“Providing three funded cycles of IVF dramatically increases the chances of these couples successfully conceiving.  We need to see funding put in place for this and increase capacity to deliver three cycles as we currently don’t have the capacity at fertility clinics here in the North.  So we have to look at other options, including across the island, to be able to deliver it so we can help couples out there who need this treatment to have a family.” 

It has transpired that those who are currently undertaking the allocated one funded cycle of IVF within the NHS are ineligible to receive the newly proposed three funded cycles.

This is an extremely worrying development for many couples as they are now being told that they may have to see out their one funded cycle and then revert back to the waiting list for more potentially funded cycles. However, what happens here? Do these couples get a further two funded cycles on top of the one they already had?

Permanent Health Secretary Richard Pengelly stated: “Northern Ireland’s Regional Fertility Centre does not have the capacity to deliver the three IVF cycles to all eligible women. The centre does not have the infrastructure and people to deliver the treatments. That is not so much a money issue,  it is more about infrastructure and people and those with the right skill set and infrastructure to do it.

“So the first step for us will be to secure additional funding and then to look to a roll-out of that model. But I think it’s important to be clear that even if the money is made available instantly there is a longer term dimension to this, the specialist skill set that is needed cannot be produced overnight but we will give it our close attention.”

Speaking outside the committee meeting, SDLP MLA Sinead Bradley added: “These challenges outlined by the permanent secretary mean that while they are waiting to expand the capacity to provide this service, many women may cross the age threshold and become ineligible.

“I made it clear that it was my view that this would be grossly unjust and cause distress for many women across the North.”

Although we feel it is very easy to criticise the government and the political parties however, they should be commended on this one. It is understandable that there are logistical issues that need resolved but with some negotiating and hard work we the public along with the government and political parties can endeavour to work together to overcome these obstacles…let’s be honest, Northern Ireland has come a long way since the Good Friday Agreement and developing this aspect of the New Decade, New Approach agreement can lead to something very special for many people in Northern Ireland.

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