Doctors, patients call on Canadian employers to help cover cost of fertility treatments, drugs

Click to play video: 'Advocates call on employers to provide fertility benefits'
Advocates call on employers to provide fertility benefits
WATCH ABOVE: Five years ago, Ontario took steps to make it easier for people to grow their families. In Canada, one in six couples experiences infertility, yet this province is one of only a few providing funding for fertility treatment. But critics say the program is far from perfect, and can go further to help -- and as Caryn Lieberman reports, there are now calls for employers to step up too – Feb 2, 2021

Fertility patient groups in Canada are calling on employers to improve fertility benefits as part of a new campaign called Fertility Benefits Matter, which also aims to raise awareness of the current state of fertility support in the country.

“There are studies that show that employers that include fertility benefits as part of their benefits packages will retain employees better, will have more productive employees as well,” said Dr. Marjorie Dixon, Conceivable Dreams adviser and founder of Anova Fertility.

Given the number of Canadian couples facing fertility challenges and the high cost of treatment and drugs, the campaign shines a spotlight on the need for greater support for couples, both financial and emotional.

According to Dr. Dixon, the main barrier to care for those experiencing infertility is cost.

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“Because the average IVF cycle costs somewhere upwards of $20,000, if individuals require the assistance of a third party, that means donor eggs or donor sperm, a gestational surrogate, that could be upwards of $80,000,” she said.

With limited provincial government funding and next to no employer benefits, Fertility Benefits Matters suggests much-needed fertility procedures are out of reach for many Canadians.

Research commissioned by the group looked at employer benefits plans in Canada with a sample of small to large employers across all provinces and various industries.

Click to play video: 'A look back at Ontario’s fertility program, 5 years later'
A look back at Ontario’s fertility program, 5 years later

It found the majority of Canadian employers did not provide fertility benefits and of those that did, only 5 per cent provided coverage for both fertility drugs and other fertility costs, such as IVF procedures and testing.

“My drug benefit program funded erectile dysfunction medication and I would hope that they would fund fertility treatment at least as much,” said Wendy Litner, previously a fertility patient and the creator of CBC’s How to Buy a Baby.

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After seven failed rounds of IVF, Litner and her husband ultimately became parents through adoption, but she continues to advocate for greater access to fertility treatments for Canadians and improved fertility benefits by employers.

“Not being handed a tremendous bill while you’re going through it would go a long way, I think, to helping people’s peace of mind,” she said, adding, “this is really advocating for equal rights for people and equal treatment in being able to have the same fundamental experience of motherhood or fatherhood that other people have.”

Tara Wood, board president of Conceivable Dreams, also underwent several rounds of IVF.

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4th annual Canadian Fertility Show goes virtual

“At 35, I was tested, I was told I have a very low egg count and a low egg quality, which means it’s very unlikely I’ll get pregnant. Four years later, tens of thousands of dollars, many hours at clinics … I still have not had a baby,” she explained.

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Wood said she has “made peace” with the fact that she may never conceive, but she advocates for others in an effort to break the stigma around infertility and break down the barriers to accessing treatment.

“Whether that’s advocating to government to improve public funding, working with employers to improve those fertility benefits, physicians to educate their patients, and, of course, all of us having these conversations because these issues don’t need to be taboo. We need to talk about them because that’s how we can make a difference,” she said.

Wood is calling on all employers and insurers to be “part of the change and lead by example.”

She also pointed out that Ontario is one of only five provinces in Canada offering some sort of government funding for fertility treatment.

The Ontario Fertility Program was launched in December 2015 and is accessible to patients under 43 who are residents of Ontario and have not yet had a funded IVF cycle.

In a statement, the Ministry of Health told Global News, “Supporting families has always been a priority for our government. Through the Ontario Fertility Program, we have been able to help more Ontarians grow their families.

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“The program is open to patients with medical issues causing infertility as well as patients with non-medical forms of infertility, such as single people or same-sex couples.”

Dr. Tom Hannam, of Hannam Fertility in Toronto, said “the funded program has been a life-saver for people … it doesn’t cover the cost of medications but it covers all other aspects of generating the eggs, making sure the sperm is available, bringing those eggs and sperm together, growing those embryos out to a usable stage.”

Dr. Hannam, like Dr. Dixon, noted, “It would be huge if more employers would be able to, as part of their extended benefits package, support access to fertility medications.”

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Dr. Dixon added, “It’s good for the employers. The employees also don’t have to deal with the stigma and the shame and the ‘can I tell my employer?'”

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Taunya and Rob Johnston are the proud parents of three children, but there was a time when they wondered whether their dream of having a family would become a reality.

“There were many moments when we didn’t think having any children was going to be a possibility,” said Taunya, who struggled with infertility because of a gastrointestinal illness.

Rob added, “$30,000 was how much it cost for Cece in total,” referring to the couple’s first child conceived through IVF.

The couple conceived their second child with help from the Ontario Fertility Program.

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“When we wanted to pursue having another child, the funded fertility program came into play … if it’s anything that the Ontario Fertility Program is giving people, it’s hope,” said Taunya.

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The couple has since had a third child — a welcome surprise.

Like other fertility advocates, Taunya would like to see employers stepping up to help.

“Definitely more can be done in the area of benefits and drug coverage because the cost of fertility drugs is so expensive … and continuing to recognize that infertility is a medical condition and there is still a lot of work to be done … to help employees going through fertility treatment,” she said.

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