The couples crippled by the cost of IVF

The couples crippled by the cost of IVF

Over three years, Gill Jones had been through five attempts at IVF, two miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy (stock picture)

Over three years, Gill Jones had been through five attempts at IVF, two miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy (stock picture)

Two years ago, Gill Jones looked around the comfortable house she shares with husband Mark in West Yorkshire and wondered whether it would ever be filled with the children they dreamed of.

The couple had ploughed 20,000 — all their savings and every spare penny of their earnings — into their battle to have children of their own. But two days before Christmas 2009, Gill miscarried — a few short weeks after her latest course of IVF.

Over three years, she had been through five attempts at IVF, two miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy: a shattering cycle of crushed hopes and financial strain, culminating in the most awful despair.

‘We realised we just couldn’t do it any more,’ says Gill, a 38-year-old human resources manager. ‘It felt like everything was against us. It was just devastating — there’s not another word for it.’

A dreadfully sad account, yet Gill and Mark’s story is, for many couples, an all too familiar one. As the Mail recently revealed, infertile couples are being driven to overspend on credit cards, take out high-interest loans and even remortgage their homes to cover bills for fertility treatment that can run into many tens of thousands of pounds.

Yet, according to fertility pioneer Lord Robert Winston, it shouldn’t be happening. The Labour peer and former head of the NHS IVF clinic at London’s Hammersmith Hospital has launched a scathing attack on the high cost of fertility treatment in Britain.

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Lord Robert Winston has launched an attack on the high cost of fertility treatment

While the National Institute for Clinical Excellence recommends that all Primary Care Trusts fund three cycles of IVF for women aged 23 to 39 who have been infertile for more than three years, the reality is that only a third of trusts fund three cycles and 39 per cent offer just one. After that, private clinics become the only option. So having paid 3,500 for an IVF cycle, perhaps another 1,000 on drugs, a few more hundred pounds for tests and extra consultations (one cycle can cost between 4,000 and 8,000) what outcomes can anxious couples expect

It’s not quite National Lottery odds, but IVF is a huge gamble. Average success rates are just 32 per cent for women under 35, falling rapidly with age to just 1.5 per cent for those over 45. There is no disputing that fertility clinics have brought enormous joy to countless families who would otherwise have remained childless. Yet the only guaranteed winners seem to be the clinics themselves.

When the Mail took a look at the
finances of a handful of the best-known fertility clinics, they appeared
to be in glowing health. Take
the Lister Fertility Clinic, established in 1988 and run by clinical
director Hossam Abdalla, who owns two-thirds of the company and is also a
member of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which
oversees the IVF industry.

When you are in the middle of a cycle,
you can’t just stop… you are on the train, it’s moving and you will pay anything

The Lister boasts high success rates (44.9 per cent on average for women under 35), but also hefty fees of 3,450 per standard cycle — plus 915 for egg/embryo freezing for a year, 162 for a pregnancy scan and 200 for an initial consultation. Last year the company’s turnover was 7.9 million, with profits of 2 million. Mr Abdalla did not take his share of the profits as dividends, allowing it instead to accumulate within the company, but he was paid 588,000.

Then there’s the London Women’s Clinic, headed by scientific and managing director Kamal Ahuja, which charges 2,950 for a standard cycle of IVF. The clinic’s parent company JD Healthcare is 95 per cent owned by Mr Ahuja and it turned over 10.87 million last year, a 23 per cent increase on the previous year. Mr Ahuja awarded himself a relatively modest salary and pension of 115,000, but if he drew his share of profits he would have been entitled to just shy of 1 million.

Such financial success is by no means restricted to London. The Care Fertility Group, which claims to be the UK’s largest independent provider of IVF, saw its profits go from 2.37 million to 4.1 million last year. Enquiries to the clinic’s Nottingham centre reveal prices not dissimilar to London clinics — 2,850 for a standard IVF cycle.

But illustrating Lord Winston’s concern
about dramatic variations in additional costs, it charges a 515 flat
fee for drugs, less than half what is typically demanded by some London
clinics. Only three years ago,
the HFEA told private clinics they should provide ‘clear and accurate’
information in the form of personalised, costed treatment plans after a
survey found that more than one-in-four fertility patients had ended up
paying more than they expected.

Average success rates for IVF are 32 per cent for women under 35

Average success rates for IVF are 32 per cent for women under 35

The Authority, which charges IVF clinics a 75 administration fee, paid by each patient, told the Mail it was not an ‘economic regulator’. Unfortunately, as Gill Jones knows only too well, what desperate woman wanting to become a mother is going to say no if something arises during treatment that requires extra funding

‘When you are in the middle of a cycle, you can’t just stop if they need another 100 for this test or that test; you are on the train, it’s moving and you will pay anything,’ she says. ‘You never believe you’re going to be in the 70 per cent who don’t succeed.’

Gill and Mark, who works for a water company, began trying to have a family soon after they married five-and-a-half years ago and sought medical advice after a year. With no explanation for their failure to conceive, they were soon swept up in the relentless roller coaster that is IVF. ‘In our area you only get one round of IVF on the NHS, not the three that NICE recommends,’ says Gill. ‘But I was 35 and we decided we couldn’t wait the one to two years it would take on the waiting list, so we decided to go privately.’

Two cycles of IVF followed in late 2007 and early 2008, but the second had to be abandoned because the drugs, costing 1,000 up front, were not stimulating Gill’s ovaries. To fund the treatment — 4,500 for two cycles — the couple raided their savings and lived frugally. Over the next year, Gill underwent a cycle using donor eggs at a clinic in Barcelona, costing 10,000 and another in Britain costing about 6,000. The first attempt ended in miscarriage, the second produced an ectopic pregnancy which resulted in one of Gill’s fallopian tubes being removed.

Still desperate to have a child, they
waged a battle with their local Primary Care Trust and underwent a final
round of IVF in Yorkshire, paid for by the NHS. Sadly, that too ended
in despair in 2009. ‘It’s so
hard,’ says Gill. ‘Some of these clinics are putting a lot of work into
increasing success rates, but it’s upsetting to think that in some ways
they could be exploiting women’s biological need and desire to have a
baby. Hearing that the costs could be halved hurts.’

It’s upsetting to think that in some
ways they could be exploiting women’s biological need and desire to have
a baby

Her feelings are echoed by Tamsin Bowers, 36, who runs an independent support group IVF Support Services in Essex. Tamsin and husband Andrew, 43, a sign maker, were so terrified of the costs in Britain that they travelled to Sweden for IVF, which led to the arrival of twins Isabella and Francesca, eight, and daughter Azaria, five. Ironically, they then had a surprise natural arrival — little Ellphia, now two. ‘I looked at clinics in Britain, but we didn’t know how expensive it was going to get — we remortgaged our home to pay for IVF.’

They chose Sweden because they had family there, it had good results and the clinic charged an all-inclusive fee of 6,000. They then remortgaged their home a second time to fund a further cycle.
‘Andrew and I are still paying for the IVF cycles now on our 25-year mortgage,’ says Tamsin. ‘Financially it was very hard. I had to give up work after we had the twins, and at the time my husband’s salary was about 19,000 a year.’

There is no indication that the clinics looked at by the Mail do not give their patients a costs summary. A spokesman for the Lister Fertility Clinic said: ‘The Lister agrees with Lord Winston that all patients must be given full information at the earliest opportunity and we always tell patients what chance they have of success and we tell them precisely what the costs will be well before treatment begins.’

He said profits were used in providing the latest equipment and technology for treatment. A Care spokesperson said: ‘Care’s reputation for developing new treatments and technologies is world-renowned. Thousands of babies have been born thanks to successful treatment. Our focus remains, as always, on our patients.’

But in West Yorkshire, Gill and Mark finally have the family of their dreams, after adopting children. ‘Now we have children we do think what could we have done with that 20,000 over the years,’ says Gill. ‘We are not the same people we were five years ago, but we feel lucky that we have our family.’

Additional reporting: Nic North