Peer attacks IVF funding

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THE LABOUR peer Robert Winston has attacked the "scandalous and bizarre" way fertility treatment is funded on the NHS under his own government.

The misery of tens of thousands of couples is being increased unnecessarily and the system is encouraging doctors to be dishonest, said the Professor of Fertility Studies, who became a "working" peer with Labour backing in 1995. He also criticised the Government's decision to continue publishing league tables showing the success rates of IVF clinics. Tables pushed clinics into becoming baby factories, he said, and encouraged them to be more inclined to treat couples with a good chance of success than to help others come to terms with their infertility.

"There is a significant problem in the field of reproductive medicine," said Lord Winston, who leads a fertility unit at Hammersmith Hospital in London, as well as presenting such TV programmes as Making Babies and The Human Body. "It's disappointing that this hasn't been tackled by the Government a year after it came to power."

His comments were made despite the pledge by Tessa Jowell, Minister for Public Health, in the Commons in May that the Government would publish national guidelines and investigate the inequalities of infertility treatment as a priority.

Last week, in a survey published by the National Infertility Awareness Campaign (NIAC), specialists warned that budgets were being squeezed, and half the doctors questioned said they would be spending less on fertility drugs this year than last. Under the present system each local health authority makes an independent decision about how much it will spend on fertility treatment, and what services it will buy. This leads to what NIAC calls "babies by postcode". Almost a quarter of health authorities in Britain fund none of the modern techniques such as IVF at all.

"Doctors in Bath have gone as far as they can now to help us," said one of 1,288 fertility patients surveyed by NIAC. "If we lived next door in Avon we could have IVF [on the NHS], but as it is, we can't. How can this be called a national health service?" Three quarters of the patients surveyed had been forced to pay for all or some of their treatments, with an average outlay pounds 3,240 per couple. More than half had experienced depression during treatment, while one in 20 had felt suicidal. "We feel abandoned by the NHS," said one couple in Greater Glasgow, although others have considered moving to Scotland to stand a better chance of getting free treatment.

"The government is allowing, by this inequality and by its bizarre funding of infertility, extraordinarily poor practice," said Lord Winston, in an interview published in full in today's Independent on Sunday Review. "This poor practice is, moreover, being funded from public sources. I think it's scandalous."

Since treatment is funded out of national rather than local taxation there should be a national standard of provision, he said. "I feel very strongly this is something for which the Government has to be answerable. It is a misuse of tax-payers' money." Review, page 4