Bioethics Today Series: Insurance Coverage for Oncofertility: Concerns about Socioeconomic Disparities

Today we continue our series highlighting reproductive medicine blog posts written by Lisa Campo-Engelstein, PhD, from the Alden March Bioethics Institute at Albany Medical College for BIOETHICS TODAY.  Dr. Campo-Engelstein's main research areas include reproductive ethics (particularly contraception, oncofertility, birth, and embry and parthenote research), gender and medicine, cancer ethics, and international bioethics (especially Costa Rica).  

BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.

Insurance Coverage for Oncofertility: Concerns about Socioeconomic Disparities

Author: Lisa Campo-Engelstein, PhD

BIOETHICS TODAY, June 16, 2014

In a recent blog, I asserted that assisted reproductive technology (ART) should be a higher priority for the global South because of the severe health, social, and economic effects infertility can have on women there. The most common response to this claim is that resources should first be devoted to treating and preventing life-threatening conditions, such as malaria and HIV/AIDS, rather than conditions that are perceived as merely social and/or psychological. The same response is often used when people suggest that ART should receive higher priority in the global North. Whereas many global North countries provide national health coverage for ART, the US does not. However, there has been movement toward coverage for ART in the US in the last couple of decades and currently 14 states require health insurance companies to cover ART (though there is a wide range of what is covered and under what circumstances). Unfortunately, oncofertility (fertility preservation for cancer patients) is not covered in any of these state laws.

While I understand the argument that limited healthcare resources should be dedicated to the most "pressing" conditions, it is also important to recognize the potential side effects of choosing not to provide coverage for oncofertility and other types of ART. One concern with the lack of coverage for ART is that it reinforces socioeconomic inequalities. The primary users of ART are white, educated, middle- and upper-class not because this group is the most likely to be infertile, but because they are the most likely to be able to afford the high cost of ART out-of-pocket expenses. Cancer patients from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are unlikely to have the large amount of disposable funds (the average cost for one cycle of IVF is around $12,400) for fertility preservation treatment. While “traditional” infertility patients can save their money over a period of time in order to be able to afford ART, cancer patients need to preserve their fertility before their cancer treatment commences and thus they need to be able to immediately provide the cash for fertility preservation treatment in order for it to occur.