How do people feel about the financial charges associated with IVF? I don't know, you tell me.
- "Incompetent or possibly fraudulent insurance practices"
- "Almost a year later I am still unable to officially take care of my billing issues"
- "They have no problem with asking me for money but pointing out there was a descrepancy [sic] in billing no one would answer"
All of these comments come from real fertility clinic reviews. Is this frustration familiar to you? Financial stress is one of the biggest pain points in dealing with infertility and it sometimes negatively influences your relationship with your fertility clinic. As if infertility didn't already give you enough to deal with, its best medical solution is one of the most expensive endeavors you'll ever face. Some people talk about the cost of IVF in terms of financial infertility, because it is the most common obstacle that prevents couples and individuals from seeking treatment. We frequently see GoFundMe and other crowdfunding campaigns to raise money for IVF. In most U.S. states and Canadian provinces, the expense of IVF is paid out of pocket. Even in the United Kingdom, where the National Health System (NHS) covers most health expenses, there are still many people in the U.K. who don't qualify for the terms of coverage and they too have to pay from their own accounts.
Organizations like RESOLVE advocate for broader and deeper coverage of fertility treatment and you can join them for their 2016 infertility advocacy day on May 11. Still, even in states like Massachusetts where insurance companies are mandated to offer IVF coverage, you find plenty of complaints about billing and unexpected charges. At issue, there are many items you can be charged for because needs vary from patient to patient. It's not uncommon to see posts from people who say they've spent over $50,000 on costs associated with IVF. That's a wide leap from the IVF packages listed at $7,500.
This variance poses a problem to you as you search for information to properly plan your budget. In the spring of 2015, I surveyed a small group of people dealing with infertility who listed cost confusion as one of their three most common pain-points in dealing with their clinics. You want a clear answer. You want the transparency that you enjoy in almost every sector in which you spend your money. You instantly pay for everything else at fixed prices from Amazon, Priceline, Fandango, and Blue Apron. Why can't you get a straight answer about how much IVF will run you? You need to know what costs you'll incur and how much of it will be covered by insurance in order to budget for your treatment. Why aren't clinics more transparent with you?
The answer is multi-faceted, so let's dig into it.
proven fact: insurance is the devil
Let's start with one of the very few, axiomatic, incontrovertible laws of the universe: insurance is a nightmare. Remember the national debate we had about healthcare coverage just a few years ago? Effectively, the arguments centered around whose solution would make our horrible payer system even more horrible. The problem certainly isn't unique to fertility care; all of healthcare is plagued by the problem of cost uncertainty. A study conducted by Consumer Reports shows that billing disputes are the third most common complaint Americans have about their doctors. Why can't a provider tell you how much a service will cost before you decide to go through with it? CEO of tech startup, PokitDok, Lisa Maki, says that people "are trapped by a system that requires that they agree to a service with no knowledge of what the outcome or what the consequences might be to them financially". It's a conundrum. Put yourself in the position of the billing manager; they hate it just as much as you do.
does insurance even cover ivf?
Glad you asked. Every U.S. state and Canadian province is different. In the United States, some states have mandated coverage. If you don't know the universal definition of mandated coverage for infertility...it's because there isn't one. It's helpful that RESOLVE grades states based on how much coverage is mandated. Some states like New York and Texas may be considered mandated states, but their coverage varies. In New York, insurance companies are mandated to cover certain treatments like IUI, but not IVF. In Texas, insurance companies are required to offer coverage in plans to employers, but employers do not have to purchase those plans.
Even in states like Massachusetts and Illinois, the law doesn't apply to certain types of employers, such as those who self-insure. What's more, you may live in a mandated state, but if your employer is not based in that state, then your home state's coverage doesn't apply to you. Don't forget about deductibles, either. You may need to spend a certain amount before insurance will pay for anything. Certain tests and medications might be covered and some might not. If you'd like to take a look at your clinic's website to see what insurances they accept, that won't help much. Every person's coverage depends on their individual plan. What might be covered for your co-worker might not be for you.
the ivf package price is not the total cost of treatment
Is your head spinning yet? We'll table the idea of insurance for the moment. Let's approach this as though you're paying entirely out of pocket. What other costs might you incur in addition to the price of the IVF cycle?
- Tests. Ask your IVF coordinator if your package has a limit on labs or ultrasounds during treatment. If there is a limit, how many labs and ultrasounds are included and how much is each additional?
- Medications. Which drugs are included in the package and which are not? How much do they cost? Is your doctor able to prescribe generic or other brand labels that might be covered by insurance? Are you allowed to buy them on your own?
- Labs. Does your clinic have an in-house endocrine lab or are your labs sent out to a third party? Labs will be drawn throughout your treatment that need to be resulted the same day. If your labs are sent to a third party, there may be an additional cost to you.
- ICSI. Is Introcytoplasmic Sperm Injection included in the package? According to Sher Fertility Institute, ICSI is often required when cases involve the severest degrees of male infertility.
- Embryo freezing. Some clinics will store your embryos in cryopreservation for six months after your IVF cycle, and some might include it for a year. How many months are included in your IVF package? What is the fee for each additional month of storage?
- Anesthesia. If the clinic doesn't disclose whether or not anesthesia is included, it is likely that they charge an additional fee.
- Donor eggs. Donor egg prices are not included in IVF packages unless specifically mentioned in separate pricing. The clinic may have their own donor bank or they may use a third party. If this is a need of yours, it will mean additional costs.
- Surrogacy. If you have this need, the total cost of surrogacy may be as high as $150,000.
- PGD. Preimplantation genetic diagnosis can greatly improve pregnancy success rates by carefully selecting embryos. For older women, and women who have suffered early pregnancy loss, PGD may be all but necessary. Rarely do IVF packages include the cost of PGD.
See? Now you understand why it's so hard for clinics to quote one all-encompassing price for IVF, beyond the most basic IVF package. Rachel Gurevich of About Health reports that the total cost of IVF treatment averages around $20,000, as opposed to the $12,000 average cycle price. There are so many moving parts, it's virtually impossible to give you one set price. As far as clinics are concerned, they need to start displaying "sample pricing". As far as you're concerned, it's better to estimate very conservatively.
then why the heck doesn't my clinic just tell me all this?
This is a great question and it's part of the reason I wrote this post. Fertility practices need to get better at educating prospective patients on cost complexity. From my observation as a marketer, some fertility centers aren't good at discussing finances for two main reasons.
- Doctors don't like to talk about money. Generally speaking, they find it unbecoming of the conduct of a physician. They hold the patient-physician relationship to be very sacred and they don't want to cause you to think otherwise. They want you to know that they are invested in your care and not the financial arrangement behind it. I see two scenarios play out in online reviews--one that validates physicians'reluctance to talk about money and one that reveals an adverse effect. In the first scenario, the doctor is perceived as "money-grubbing" or trying to "sell" IVF. In the second, people are surprised by a bill and they lash out at their practice for a charge they weren't expecting. Finance isn't an easy subject to bring up, and that's why most physicians leave the discussion to their billing department. The appropriate sales conversation for infertility treatment is content for another post.
- Clinics are afraid to be punished for doing the right thing. What happens when a fertility practice tells you to budget $20,000, and you get a quote of $8,000 from one of their competitors? To a degree, this concern is justified. Tests show that, if not supported by the necessary context, pricing can sometimes drive people away. I would know. I am not the cheapest marketer that someone can hire and I never want to be. When I quote someone for a price, I want to include everything they might need. If I tell someone they should budget for a marketing strategy at $6,000/month, I include an advertising budget, graphic design, web development, etc. Someone else might tell them that they charge $600 per month for marketing services. That $600 doesn't do much but it sure sounds better than $6,000. No matter the service, people often ask about price before considering the total value being offered. This creates an undesirable cycle: you won't tell me your pricing until I'm more interested; I'm not interested until I know your pricing. This is very annoying for both parties involved, fertility centers and their patients.
be an educated consumer, and make sure they know it
So why should your fertility clinic show you detailed sample pricing? Are they trapped in a catch 22? Tests prove that the advantages of publishing prices far outweigh the disadvantages Think of it this way. Do you ever stop shopping before you know what the price is? What is the cost of a ride across town? You won't know until the cab stops and adjusts their meter. So you choose Uber, because you see the price in advance, and peer reviews validate the experience you're looking for. To compete for your selection, fertility clinics need to be more upfront with pricing. Leave that part to me.
For your part, the more educated you are as a patient-consumer, the more information practices will have to provide to you ahead of time. You are now conversational in the basics of infertility financing. You will be fluent by the end of your journey. To start, you have some background knowledge of which costs to investigate. Clinics are reluctant to share more information on pricing, partly because they are concerned that their competitors will get away with cost ambiguity. Don't let competing fertility clinics win by giving you less information. As an educated patient-consumer, you have the power to let transparency rule the day.