The provincial government is fulfilling a promise to pay for three in-vitro fertilization attempts for infertile couples, but specialists believe the plan is premature and ill-thought out.

The government-covered IVF, which begins on August 5, is a first in North America.

"It's good news for Quebec. We are the first, which means we are the best on this kind of program," said Health Minister Yves Bolduc.

The Health Ministry made the promise two years ago and expects to provide 3,500 cycles of treatment this year, for a budget of $32 million.

The department expects the number of treatment cycles to increase to 7,000 by 2014, costing up to $64 million by that year.

The program is expected to increase the province's birth rate while simultaneously decreasing the risk of multiple births.

Costly program will need more specialists

Medical specialists scheduled to be enlisted to help couples conceive and then care for these women say they're not opposed to the plan, but believe it is premature.

"This network is at its limits today. We live crisis after crisis in this province in terms of neonatology and this program will have the consequence of, in multiple ways, increasing the burden in this sector," said Dr. Gaetan Barrette, president of the Federation of Quebec Specialists.

Women using IVF will be prioritized according to their age and the reasons for infertility, however, this is expected to create a huge demand for what is at present an expensive procedure, with each attempt costing $10,000 to $15,000.

"The importance now is to make sure the government follows through," said Dr. Seang Lin Tan, an obsetrician/gynecologist for the MUHC.

The province wants to hire more specialists, and doctors who already work in the field said they believe that is an absolute must, otherwise, they caution, people seeking IVF will face backlogs and delays because Quebec just does not have enough people working in this field to service 7,000 couples each year.

"Right now we are missing 60 to 70 gynecologists in the province just to follow normal pregnancies. We do not have enough specialists in fertility in the province to follow all those patients," said Dr. Robert Sabbah, vice-president of the Quebec Association of Obsetricians and Gynecologists.

Tan also said resources are currently too thin for this project.

"It's no good saying you should treat more people, but if you don't have enough doctors and nurses, you don't have enough resources, you can't really do it," said Tan.

Medical ethicist Margaret Sommerville said the province also needs to consider equity in a healthcare system that is already strained.

"Whenever we allocate money in healthcare, we allocate to something from and away from something else," said Sommerville.

Julie Snyder among plan's supporters

Several notable Quebecers were instrumental in convincing the government to cover in-vitro fertilization, including television personality Julie Snyder.

The well-known TV host had her own fertility problems, but eventually used IVF to conceive two children with her common-law partner, Pierre-Karl Peladeau.

"It's very tough to suffer of infertility, even if you can afford it," said Snyder.

Snyder has spent years supporting the Association des Couples Infertiles (ACIQ) in its bid for government coverage of IVF.