Campaigners hit out at 'short-sighted' plans to halt fertility treatments
Plans to temporarily halt fertility treatment for couples in Northern Ireland are short-sighted, campaigners warned.
Fertility Fairness said it was appalled after health chiefs proposed the five-month deferral as part of massive across-the-board savings.
Access to the Regional Fertility Centre for an estimated 320 new patients would be delayed until next April, according to the Belfast Health Trust.
They would then join a waiting list already up to nine months long for certain treatments.
Susan Seenan, co-chair of Fertility Fairness, said: ''Fertility Fairness is appalled at the proposal to defer NHS fertility treatment for five months for all new patients in Northern Ireland: This will cause unnecessary suffering for already stressed patients and is an economically short-sighted measure."
The hiatus is among a raft of NHS cost-cutting proposals aimed at delivering a £70 million saving by March.
Ms Seenan said struggling with the disease of infertility can lead to significant mental health problems including depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Patients are more likely to contact their GPs, see their marriages break down and often find it difficult to hold down jobs.
Deferring funding will also increase the likelihood that more patients will travel abroad for cheaper treatment, the lobby group said, probably inflating the number of risky and costly multiple births.
Sharon Davidson, Northern Ireland co-ordinator for patient charity Fertility Network UK, said distressed patients were desperately awaiting their one chance to try for a baby.
She said: "Couples with fertility problems are already waiting unnecessarily long times: There is currently a lengthy 18-month wait from GP referral to starting IVF."
Patients can have been struggling to conceive for three years before they qualify for NHS treatment.
She added: "Prompt access to NHS fertility services is crucial for patients to have the best possible chance of success."
As part of the proposed cutbacks the five health trusts in the region are also set to reduce reliance on agency staff and locum doctors, while the number of hospital beds available is due to fall in some trust areas.