The women’s clinic at the Lois Hole Hospital for Women in north Edmonton will stop offering non-insured fertility services such as intrauterine insemination (IUI) and in vitro fertilization (IVF), Alberta Health Services confirmed Friday.
The changes will come into effect in February 2018. The Regional Fertility and Women’s Endocrine Clinic at the hospital will also discontinue donor egg and sperm programs.
“It’s my understanding that the physicians who are practicing there have decided to move to another clinic,” Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said Friday.
“It’s my understanding physicians will still be operating in the city of Edmonton but not at that site. It’s challenging sometimes when you don’t have the staff to provide the services in the current facility but the service will still be provided in the city of Edmonton.”
The clinic will remain open and continue to offer insured services to patients, such as cancer screening and high-risk pregnancy care.
AHS said it is a publicly funded health-care organization that must focus on publicly funded services. Demand for non-insured services at the clinic has dropped by 28 per cent in the past year, AHS said.
“Albertans expect us to use their taxpayer dollars in the most responsible way,” AHS said in a statement on its website.
“Given the significant patient demand for insured fertility services, it has become increasingly challenging for AHS to contribute public resources, such as space and equipment, for privately funded non-insured services, especially as wait lists for publicly funded services continue to grow and the need for new services expands.”
The news came as a surprise to Katie Lee, who learned of the changes Friday morning through a Facebook support group for people facing infertility. One in six Canadian couples are believed to be affected by infertility.
“I didn’t believe it at first. It was a shock. I was outraged, I was upset. What do you do? You don’t know what to do. They haven’t notified anybody and I almost didn’t think it was real.”
Lee and her partner have been patients at the women’s clinic for two years, and were about to progress into IVF treatment. The couple waited 14 months to get into the clinic at the Lois Hole Hospital.
“That means that we’re starting fresh. We have to move to a different clinic. We probably have to go through more testing. They may not let us start IVF right away because protocols change from clinic to clinic,” Lee said.
Because the province doesn’t cover fertility treatments, patients pay out of pocket whether they go to a public or private clinic. Lee is worried the changes at the public clinic will mean longer wait times — and possibly higher prices — to get treatment at a private facility.
“I think patients are going to end up waiting longer, they’re going to end up paying more. These private clinics can charge way more now,” she said. “It’s not cheap. We’ve already spent thousands of dollars.”
A private fertility clinic opened in Edmonton last year. At the time, the Pacific Centre for Reproductive Medicine (PCRM) was seeing between 30 and 40 patients per day and had about 1,000 patients registered for fertility services.
Lee hopes AHS will reconsider the move.
“Infertility is such a quiet struggle for most people. It’s not something they like to talk about, it’s kept very personal and very quiet and I don’t know if people will speak up enough to say, ‘This isn’t right.'”
Friends of Medicare, a group aimed at raising public awareness related to health care, is calling on AHS to rethink the decision.
“We are disappointed to see this happening,” executive director Sandra Azocar said. “With the services ending in February, the Ministry of Health has time to reverse this decision, and they should.
“The clinic at the Lois Hole Hospital is one of the last of two public academic IVF centres in all of Canada. Instead of ending the services, they should keep them in the hospital and begin covering IVF as a publicly insured service.”
Alberta Liberal MLA David Swann is also calling on AHS to reverse the decision.
“Not only does the minister need to save this clinic, but the NDP must do more to help Albertans facing infertility in the public health-care system, instead of offloading them onto the private sector.”
The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees called the decision by AHS a mistake that could mean higher costs for those seeking treatment.
“Health services typically cost the user much more when they’re provided in a private setting and that means Albertans looking for help to start a family may have to pay more to do so,” vice president James Hart said.
AHS said no jobs will be lost. Officials said they will work with patients to move them to a private clinic — in Edmonton, Calgary or outside the province — in a timely fashion and make the transition as seamless as possible.
“We have a sense that the clinic (in Edmonton) is able to take these patients and that they have the capacity to take them and that the timeliness and access to services will be quite satisfactory to patients,” said Dr. Curt Johnston, facility medical director with AHS.
“Their concerns are very understandable. We understand that a change like this or a transition like this can cause a lot of questions and a lot of concerns and anxiety. It’s something that we want to assure them, that we intend to work with each and every one of them to figure out an individual plan for how we transition their care.”
The PCRM said in a statement it will work with AHS staff to ensure patient transitions occur in a safe and expeditious manner.
“PCRM is increasing its clinical capacity in an effort to minimize wait times.”
Hoffman said the government is working with affected staff to find job opportunities within the Edmonton area, ideally at the Royal Alexandra Hospital site.