Outraged patients protested in a southern Chinese hospital earlier this month in light of recently implemented cost increases to fertility treatments throughout the country.

According to Caixin, several dozen patients unfurled banners within the Peking University Shenzhen Hospital in Guangdong Province on July 4 after the hospital raised prices on fertility treatments. Some treatment options increased almost five fold.

After the protesters were removed from the premises, the hospital released a statement on social media stating that the price increases that went effective on July 1 reflected improved technology and higher costs of treatment. It said it would work in the coming days to answer patient questions and concerns.

The costs of approximately ten fertility-related treatments were increased, including the monthly cost of embryo preservation, rising from RMB 110 to 500 (US$16 to $73). The in vitro fertilization process which includes egg collection, fertilization, freezing and transfer rose to RMB 20,000 (US$2,939) per attempt.

The price increases come as older couples seek to have another child after the country lifted its controversial one child policy in 2016. The policy reversal was aimed at curbing the nation’s rapidly aging population. In 2016, 7.86 million births were recorded, an increase of 7.9 percent from 2015 and the highest single year for newborns since 2000.

Price increase questioned

The rate hikes in Guangdong are not expected to be isolated. Provincial governments in Yunnan and Heilongjiang have already approved price adjustments in fertility treatments within their jurisdiction. Last year, the central government’s National Development and Reform Commission issued a statement in support of medical service and pricing reforms for special category treatments (including infertility) to make public hospitals more self-sufficient.

Officials in Guangdong approved pricing independence on 47 medical treatments that including fertility and cosmetic plastic surgery in March. Peking University Shenzhen Hospital justified price increases on all 47 treatments based on “stringent cost evaluations.”

Medical experts however are questioning policy documents from Guangdong, Shanxi and Heilongjiang which have grouped fertility treatment as a special category treatment that includes orthodontics and plastic surgery.

Zhai Xiaomei, director of bioethics research at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences criticizes the grouping of fertility treatments with cosmetic surgery. She says that treating infertility unlike plastic surgery represents basic medical needs for some families and that increased infertility rates are social problem with causes linked to environmental pollution and food safety issues.

“Infertility treatment is not simply an individual responsibility but must take into consideration the responsibility of the government and public,” she told Caixin. Zhai says that infertility treatment should be covered by national health insurance.

Huang Wenzheng of the Center for China and Globalization think tank says that at the minimum, subsidies for fertility treatment should be a consideration for older couples who were prevented from having a second child due to the one child policy.

In a report on infertility issued last year by the China Population Association, infertility rates in the country had reached 12.5 to 15 percent, with one couple in eight confronted with the problem. It blames factors including the stress of modern day living as well as environmental pollution as factors.

Editor: Edward White