Fertility clinics have allowed couples to start families even when life has seemingly conspired against them. By freezing sperm and eggs, the hope of a future family generation can be stored for years. But for customers of Ahuja Medical Center, a clinic in Ohio, those hopes were possibly dashed by negligence. More than 4000 eggs and embryos were potentially rendered unviable after their cryofreezer failed earlier this month. Over twenty fertility clinic lawsuits have been filed in the wake of this accident, and more are expected to follow.
It has been a trying month for fertility clinics. In San Francisco, a class-action lawsuit against Pacific Fertility Center was filed on behalf of 100 people who lost thousands of eggs and embryos. The cause was again a failure in the cryofreezing systems that are required to preserve the material safely.
Victims had expectations of security and safety from the clinics
The process of storing sperm, eggs, and embryos for the future is expensive, as is in-vitro fertilization. The costs to use these services is great, but so is the cost of maintaining such facilities. The freezer units are specialized for the task. Every clinic must maintain the equipment to a high-standard to avoid what happened. Then there are the people required to run such a practice, from the technicians to the doctors and nurses involved in all aspects of the process.
The costs are prohibitive to many. Those able to afford storing sperm, eggs, and embryos do so for a variety of reasons. Hopeful parents afflicted by cancers, for example, often consider these services before undergoing treatments that could render them infertile. And because the cost is high, there is a certain expectation that the clinics would do everything in their power to protect stored eggs and embryos.
Neglected cryofreezers failed to alert staff until it was too late
Part of the protective measures in place for the cryofreezers is an alarm system. The units are set to maintain specific temperatures to ensure the viability of the stored material. But accidents can happen, and machine parts can fail.
The system in the California and Ohio clinics included alarm systems that would alert any personnel on hand. For example, if the temperatures were to rise to unsafe levels, an alarm would trigger a response from the clinic staff. Stored eggs and embryos would likely be moved to other cryo storage units.
But as the letter from University Hospitals in Ohio revealed, the freezer unit in question was showing problems for quite some time. For “several weeks”, the freezer’s liquid nitrogen auto-fill systems were failing to operate correctly. This meant that staff were forced to manually fill the freezers with containers of liquid nitrogen. The letter states that the company was aware that the freezer needed “preventative maintenance.” Prior to the weekend of the failure, the clinic claims the unit was ‘topped off’ with liquid nitrogen. It would prove to be inadequate preparation.
More troubling was the failure of the alarm system. These alarms would have alerted the employee on hand for the weekend shifts. However, these alarms failed to trigger, and not because of mechanical problems. Early investigations by University Hospitals discovered that the alarms had been shut off prior to the incident. The company does not know when the alarms were disabled, or why.
The California incident follows similar circumstances. The freezer tank in question failed to maintain liquid nitrogen levels, ultimately affecting hundreds of clients.
Fertility clinic lawsuits expected to be costly
With the services of these clinics being as expensive as they are, it is no surprise that lawsuits worth millions are being proposed. The San Francisco Pacific Fertility center charges $8345 for one cycle of egg preservation and storage. It’s an additional $600 a year for continued storage. Additional services are not factored in, but for couples looking for in-vitro fertilization, those costs can sky rocket with doctor’s consultations and preventative care bills.
Complicating matters is the fact that malfunctions like this, which the industry considers rare, are poorly reported. There is no central agency that clinics are inspected by, and inspections do not include the vital cryo-freezer units. This can mean that problems like the Ohio clinic could go unnoticed and unaddressed. There is no penalty… until the worst-case scenario unfolds.
Additionally, the laws in every state differ when it comes to fertility clinics. California’s standards are particularly stringent, requiring fertility clinics be properly accredited. Conversely, Ohio does not.
The industry behind fertility clinics has just been issued a pair of potentially expensive warning shots across the bows. And while the lawsuits may punish the centers responsible for these incidents, there is no telling how the rest of the industry, and the government, will respond.