Back in 2012 when Melody Harrah and her husband, Sante, of Maryville, were hoping to grow their family, they got the disappointing news it wasn’t going to be easy.
Harrah, who is now 36, was diagnosed at that time with polycystic syndrome and also infertility, which means she had gone a full year trying to get pregnant and couldn’t.
“At that point, I knew I would need to be referred to a fertility doctor,” she said. “I knew that insurance wasn’t going to pay for that, so I just put it aside.”
She said she and her husband were terrified at the cost of seeing an infertility specialist and the treatments that would be necessary if they wanted to conceive. That they would have to wait years to save up enough money made Harrah both sad and a little angry.
“The cost is what has kept me from growing my family,” she said. “I don’t think that’s right. Infertility is a disease that is diagnosed, so why are we having to jump through hoops to have our disease recognized.”
The couple, who knew they weren’t getting any younger — and age is a factor that affects couples wanting to get pregnant — decided 2020 would be their year. Harrah found a Knoxville fertility doctor who was able to see patients even during COVID. The Harrahs have been working with her doctor now since March.
The fertility treatments have continued into 2021, with the Harrahs having to pay for doctor visits and medications out of pocket since insurance companies aren’t required to cover them. However, there are 19 states that require or have passed infertility insurance laws, with six of them passing new legislation since 2018. Harrah wants to see Tennessee join them.
Grassroots campaign emerges
As she began her journey to get pregnant, she also wanted to connect with other couples facing the same issues. Harrah said at first, she didn’t find any groups out there to connect with until she came across Tennessee Fertility Advocates. She found the group back in November and called immediately.
Tennessee Fertility Advocates is a new grassroots advocacy organization that plans to find a state lawmaker who will sponsor a bill to help these couples get their medical care covered by insurance. The founders, Mollie Walker and Lauren Brown, hope to do that in 2021. They reside in West Tennessee.
It didn’t take long for Harrah to decide she had found her place with this advocacy group. She even agreed to be the lead advocate for East Tennessee to garner support for a pro-family infertility insurance bill in Tennessee and increase awareness about the medical condition.
Harrah has even shared her personal story on the TFA website. She shares that being a mom has been a dream of hers for as long as she can remember. Infertility’s treatment should be covered by insurance just like any other medical diagnosis, like cancer or diabetes, she explained.
One in six couples struggles with infertility. In one-third of the cases, it’s problems associated with the female, and in one-third of other cases, it’s the male. For the remaining one-third of cases, it is a combination of both or undetermined.
Bill is drafted
Harrah said her group does have a bill drafted to introduce into the Tennessee General Assembly. They need a legislator to sponsor it. States that have some type of fertility care legislation include Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, Delaware, New Hampshire, California, New Jersey and Illinois.
Tennessee currently has no fertility coverage. Individual employers can choose to offer coverage.
Walker said her organization has written the legislation and is currently in the process of meeting with elected officials to speak with them about Tennessee Fertility Advocates and why it exists.
Meeting with state legislators
“We have spoken to House Reps. Kevin Vaughan, Ryan Williams, Karen Camper, Susan Lynn, Esther Helton, Robin Smith, (Maryville’s) Bob Ramsey and Sens. Jack Johnson, Paul Rose, Bo Watson, Ed Jackson, John Stevens and Paul Bailey,” Walker reported. “We have also spoken to Gov. Lee’s office. We have appointments in the upcoming weeks with 11 others at this time. Many have agreed to co-sponsor and we are working to identify our bill champions in the House and Senate for this pro-family bill.”
Tennessee Fertility Advocates has partnered with Fertility Within Reach, a national organization that seeks more awareness about infertility and insurance coverage for treatment. The legislation these groups hope to get passed in Tennessee would cover the diagnosis of infertility, fertility treatment, including medications and also fertility preservation, or the freezing of eggs.
Meanwhile, Harrah continues her fertility treatments. The medications alone are $430 per month. That doesn’t include office visits. She said most fertility clinics offer some type of financing because they know families can’t do this on their own.
Some people have suggested the couple consider adoption, but that is also an expensive route. A private adoption can cost $30,000 Harrah said.
TFA knows it’s a lengthy process to get a bill passed in the state legislature. Harrah said the group is committed to getting it done. The idea of hiring a lobbyist was mentioned, but Harrah said that was cost prohibitive.
Eye toward future
Harrah doesn’t know if she will have to move up to more expensive treatments like in vitro fertilization. She said fewer than 3% of infertility cases have to go that route. For some, it can be an easy fix, like medication helping a low sperm count.
“We haven’t moved on to bigger infertility treatments,” Harrah said. “I hope we don’t have to. I don’t want to have to stop my journey just because I can’t afford it.”
Walker remains steadfast in this fight for infertility coverage. A resident of Collierville, she and her organizers have spread out across the country to gain advocates and awareness. She and co-founder Lauren Brown have been friends for decades.
“Lauren Brown and I met when we were 5 years old and instantly became friends,” Walker said. “Our paths became intertwined again at an older age, but this time it was due to our own infertility struggles. We felt a deep desire to give our pain a purpose and bring awareness and change at an employer and state level to provide support to those struggling with this awful disease.”