CHILDLESS couples waiting to discover if their fertility treatment will be funded on the NHS will have to meet a set of new guidelines.

Cash-strapped East Lancashire Health Authority bosses have provisionally agreed to endorse the same eligibility criteria used by the IVF Unit at the Central Manchester NHS Trust.

The guidelines say:

Couples will be accepted if they have a history of stable heterosexual cohabitation of at least three years.

Couples will be accepted if the female is less than the age of 40 at the time of treatment and her partner less than 50.

There should be a maximum of three cycles of treatment and a "two embryo" policy to reduce the incidence of multiple births.

Couples with a child living with them from the current or previous relationship, or an adopted child, will not be accepted.

The health authority is expected to contact each of the couples individually to inform them if they are eligible for treatment. Public health director Dr Stephen Morton said two thirds of East Lancashire couples were currently sent to the Manchester trust for fertility treatment in any case.

Frank Clifford, chairman of Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale Community Health Council, said: "It is an absolute certainty that these decisions are cash-considered and not judged on clinical effectiveness."

He called for any decision to be delayed for a month for talks to take place with health watchdogs and GPs.

Richard Crail, health authority chief executive, said: "We are not against consultation, but I think we can do the two things together.

"We cannot just carry on. We have got to do something. We have been playing around with this for 18 months."

Non-executive member Elizabeth Howarth said: "We are thinking about 40 couples who have been sitting on a knife-edge for some time."

FOR many it is their only hope of a child.

But that distant dream has suddenly turned to a nightmare for East Lancashire's childless. Forty couples have been left in limbo by East Lancashire Health Authority's decision to suspend sending patients for fertility treatment. It is also a shattering blow to others who had been contemplating going down the traumatic road to IVF and other treatment.

And there are many whose treatment has already begun who don't know if it will continue to be paid for by the NHS.

They include Joanne and Simon - not their real names - who have been trying for a child for several years and who have already undergone one unsuccessful cycle of IVF treatment.

Their frustration and anger was evident as they spoke of their plight to the Lancashire Evening Telegraph.

"This decision is something that more and more young couples will be affected by in the future. There appears to have been a complete mismanagement of this area of healthcare for some years," said Simon, 26.

"We were referred for treatment (after a considerable wait to see a consultant in Blackburn) in November 1995, yet we had to wait until April 1996 for sufficient funds to be made available by East Lancashire Health Authority for us to have treatment. "At that time, we were happy that the health authority was funding our treatment and from our conversation with other couples from around the country it appeared that we were extremely lucky in this regard.

"We thought that the fact that we had received funding was as a result of having a health authority which was concerned about providing infertility treatment, but it appears that it was as a result of a health authority which had no control over spending and was limited to providing little more than 30 days of treatment a year before its funds ran out.

"This whole situation is brought about by the underfunding of the NHS by the Tories and the lack of priority given to such treatment by the health authorities - a situation which despite recent promises to increase spending 'year on year' we cannot believe will get any better.

"Indeed, as the problem of infertility increases so will the need to provide a proper solution to the funding crisis.

"Having set criteria for couples wanting treatment the situation may well be resolved for some, yet for others it will no doubt be one of the most devastating pieces of news in their lives - unless they are able to provide many thousands of pounds to pay for treatment themselves." His 30-year-old wife added: "Waiting to discover if our treatment will be funded is more stressful than the treatment itself.

"To go private we would need to borrow £10,000 to pay for three cycles of treatment.

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