HEARTBREAK is hitting hundreds of North Yorkshire couples who are being denied IVF treatment to help them have babies.

The waiting list for in vitro fertilisation (IVF) - the last desperate hope for many childless couples - has now been suspended in the county since January.

New figures obtained by The Press from the cash-strapped North Yorkshire and York Primary Care Trust (PCT) reveal that there are currently about 300 women waiting on the list - not knowing when they will be given the treatment they long for.

The women who are waiting to be given the treatment range in age from 21 to 39 - the latter being the cut-off age for women being offered IVF on the NHS, according to national guidelines.

Dr Brian McGregor, a York GP and secretary of the York Local Medical Committee, said: "This is an ongoing tragedy for each and every one of these women, many of whom have struggled for years to try and conceive, and are well aware their personal chances of success are reduced significantly with increasing age - many will be aware that even if they reach the age for treatment (approaching 40), success rates are significantly lower than attempting IVF at a younger age."

The cash-strapped PCT first suspended IVF treatment at the beginning of this year as part of a package of short-term measures to save £10million.

In April, many of the suspended treatments became available again - but IVF still continued to be unavailable save for "exceptional cases".

Women can still be given initial investigations for infertility, but they must go on the waiting list for the treatment itself.

Dr John Crompton, chairman of the North Yorkshire Local Medical Committee, said the body was trying to negotiate with the PCT on the issue. He said: "We really don't find it acceptable that in North Yorkshire we're in a position that our patients are being disadvantaged in that they don't have access to IVF routinely as per NICE (National Institute for Clinical Excellence) guidelines. We realise that the PCT have a very difficult job to do to try to balance their books. But it doesn't fit in when you've got national guidance and patients who should have access to these services."

A spokesman for North Yorkshire and York PCT said: "The PCT has decided to continue with its restriction of IVF treatment, however cases are still being considered for patients with an exceptional need. These cases are being considered on an individual basis considering the personal circumstances of each patient. We obviously recognise the often distressing circumstances around the need for IVF treatment, which is why we have a system in place to ensure that those most in need can still access the treatment."

Treatments were suspended to save cash

The Primary Care Trust (PCT) suspended a wide range of medical treatments in January to save cash.

The organisation put in place a group of medics called the Prior Approval Panel for exceptional cases to vet patients sent by their GPs for any of the suspended treatments. GPs were discouraged from referring patients for these procedures, but could send those they felt to be urgent cases to the panel.

The most recent figures obtained by The Press revealed that about half of the patients sent to the panel were granted the treatments. Now many of the treatments which were originally suspended have become available again - but the prior approval system is still in place for some procedures.

GPs who feel their patients urgently need IVF are being asked to send their cases to the PCT in the same way as the prior approval system - with only "exceptional cases" given the procedure.

We handed in a petition signed by 2,346 readers protesting at the system. More people have since signed our petition forms and sent them in to our Walmgate offices.

Guidelines for provision of treatment

THE provision of IVF treatment is subject to guidelines issued by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE).

These recommend that women who fulfil certain criteria should be offered up to three cycles of IVF on the NHS.

The guidelines say women should be between 23 and 39 years old when they are treated, and one or both members of a couple should have been diagnosed with a fertility problem. Women can also be offered the treatment if a couple has suffered from infertility for at least three years.

In 2004, the then health secretary Dr John Reid asked PCTs to make sure they offered at least one cycle of IVF to women by April 2005.