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Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews is shown on Feb. 11, 2013.

PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Ontario is planning to expand government coverage of in vitro fertilization, but patients will still have to foot the bill for a large portion of the pricey treatment.

Health Minister Deb Matthews announced Thursday the province will help pay for one cycle of IVF for all infertile people. Patients will still cover the cost of their own drugs, and also have to pay full freight for subsequent rounds of IVF.

"Today will provide funding, and also bring infertility out of the shadows," Ms. Matthews said at a YMCA in Toronto. "This is something one in six of us will struggle with in our lives."

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The new funding, which is expected to cost about $50-million a year, will help an estimated 4,000 people and is slated to be in place by early 2015. Currently, Ontario only pays for IVF for women with blocked fallopian tubes.

The province is only the third to put public dollars into IVF. Quebec offers the most generous system, covering the cost of between three and six rounds, including drugs. Manitoba offers a tax credit to defray some of the cost.

Ms. Matthews said Ontario has not determined how the new funding will be delivered – whether directly through the public-health insurance system, OHIP, or via tax credit. Asked why the province will offer more limited funding than Quebec, Ms. Matthews said the government, which is staring down an $11.4-billion deficit, simply cannot afford to fully pay for treatment.

Ellen Greenblatt, clinical director of the centre for fertility at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital, said any financial assistance from the province helps.

"We see many patients who just cannot move forward because it's financially beyond their reach, or they delay their treatment until they can afford it," she said. "And unfortunately for women, as they get older, IVF treatment becomes less successful."

The province is hoping that helping to fund IVF will cut down on multiple births, which are costly to the health-care system. Many people using IVF receive more than one embryo to increase the chances of success from the treatment, which can run more than $10,000. The government program will only fund an IVF cycle that puts in embryos one at a time.

Ms. Greenblatt said multiple births cost "orders of magnitude" more than single births. Multiples have a greater chance of premature delivery and other medical problems that keep them in neo-natal care and in hospital for weeks or months.

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Cutting down on multiple births is expected to save the health-care system money.

Christina Shiels, a 38-year-old law clerk, spent more than $50,000 undergoing five inseminations and two IVFs. Now, expecting her first child in July, she said the government paying part of the cost is good news. But she said she would have liked the coverage to go further. Buying the drugs for her most recent round of IVF, for instance, cost $8,000.

"I'm excited about it," she said of the government announcement. "I'm not as excited as I would like to be – the drugs are sometimes more than the IVF costs if you don't have coverage."

Ontario's move on IVF has been a long time coming: An expert panel first recommended it nearly five years ago.

The funding must also clear a major political hurdle before it is put in place. The minority Liberals need the backing of at least one other party to pass this spring's budget, which will include the IVF funding, and avoid an early election.

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