Hungarian government takes over fertility clinics to boost birth rate

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary’s government has taken over six privately owned fertility clinics and boosted funding to make treatments accessible to many more couples in a bid to reverse a population decline, the government said.

FILE PHOTO: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrives for the European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium December 12, 2019. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Prime Minister Viktor Orban has made it a priority to boost the population and reverse a labor shortage with incentives to raise the birth rate rather than increase immigration, anathema to the nationalist leader.

His government has already introduced a string of measures, including tax benefits, subsidized loans and other programs to favor families.

In a ruling published in the official gazette Magyar Kozlony late on Thursday, the government said it had brought six private clinics specialized in in-vitro fertilization (IVF) under state ownership and control, designating the move an issue of “national strategic importance” and exempting it from competition rules.

The government also said drugs used in fertility treatments would be free of charge as of Jan. 1 and volume limitations for state-financed IVF treatments would be abolished in order to eliminate waiting lists.

A government spokesman did not reply to Reuters questions about the details of the takeover.

The leading IVF clinic in Budapest, the Kaali Institute, which was taken into state ownership, declined to comment.

Its founder, Professor Geza Nagy Kaali, was cited in a government statement as saying at a press conference that with the “improved financing” even more babies will be born.

In 2017, Kaali wrote an open letter to Orban, saying 20-25% of Hungarian couples who want to have children were struggling with fertility problems.

He had urged an abolition of limitations on state financing for IVF treatments, saying that as a result, the number of babies born with IVF could rise to 3,500 from 2,000 per year.

Vince Forgacs, the director of Forgacs Intezet, another IVF clinic, said in an emailed reply to Reuters on Friday that “the change in ownership did not affect the personal and material conditions of the institutions.” He did not comment on the price and declined to giver further details.

The government scheme to promote marriage and childbirth with subsidized loans has already helped produce a boom in weddings, though it is still too early to say whether more babies will follow. The birth rate in Hungary is at 1.48 babies per woman.[nL8N2863PY]

Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Nick Macfie