The Government will lift the age limit of 45 for women seeking to undergo in-vitro fertilisation (IVF), and will allow some co-funded treatments to be carried out at a later age.
The number of assisted reproduction technology (ART) cycles a woman can undergo will also no longer be capped, said Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor yesterday. At present, a woman is allowed to undergo only a maximum of 10 cycles up to the age of 40, and five cycles after that age.
Currently, the Government co-funds up to six ART cycles - which include IVF - only for women who begin a cycle before turning 40.
From Jan 1 next year, up to two of the six cycles can be carried out when the woman is 40 or older, as long as the couple had tried ART or intra-uterine insemination (IUI) procedures before the woman turned 40.
There is no subsidy right now for those undergoing IUI procedures, which are less invasive than ART treatments. But from next year, eligible couples receiving IUI treatment at public assisted reproduction centres will also get subsidies.
The moves come against a backdrop of later marriages, which mean more couples may need help conceiving, said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo, who also oversees population matters, yesterday.
For ART treatments, couples will receive co-funding of up to $7,700 per fresh cycle and $2,200 per frozen cycle, for three fresh cycles and three frozen cycles, provided that the woman is medically assessed to be fit to carry a pregnancy to term. Fresh cycles refer to treatments involving fresh embryos, and are more costly than those involving frozen ones. More support is given if both spouses are Singaporeans than if just one of them is.
The Ministry of Health (MOH) said that last year, there were 992 ART cycles done by those aged between 41 and 45, compared with 709 in 2014.
The changes come as the medical risk for older women has been reduced with the advancement of medical technology, said MOH.
Singaporeans attempt about 2,000 IUI cycles a year, each costing about $1,300.
From Jan 1, eligible couples undergoing IUI treatment at public hospitals will get assistance of up to 75 per cent, capped at $1,000 per cycle, for a maximum of three cycles. To qualify, women have to be under 40 at the start of the IUI cycle.
Mrs Teo encouraged couples who wish to start a family to begin trying for a baby earlier, as fertility treatments do not always lead to successful conception.
These moves signal "that the Government is serious about helping Singaporeans achieve their desire to have children in regard to facilitating fertility, and addressing Singaporeans' preference for having a large 'Singaporean core' of 'natural' citizens", said sociologist Tan Ern Ser.
He added that surveys show Singaporeans do desire to have two or more children, and a significant number of married women have difficulties conceiving.
Voluntary welfare organisation I Love Children's president Joni Ong welcomed the moves. "We must grant the choice to a woman to have a baby if she really wants it," she said. "ART doesn't just succeed straight away - there may be disappointment with several cycles. Before you know it, the woman would be older, and funds may have dried up."
Dr Khor said by the end of next year, childhood vaccinations and developmental screenings will also be more accessible and affordable.
Currently, there are subsidies for selected National Childhood Immunisation Schedule vaccinations, targeted at diseases with high outbreak potential such as measles, mumps and rubella, at polyclinics. However, vaccinations against pneumococcal disease and the human papillomavirus, which are for personal protection, are not subsidised. By the end of next year, subsidies for these will be rolled out at polyclinics and Community Health Assist Scheme (Chas) general practitioner clinics.
Developmental screenings for Singaporean children now subsidised at polyclinics will also be subsidised at Chas clinics.