To afford expensive fertility treatments, Utah couples turn to contests

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ramsi Stoker is pictured with her children, from left, Banks, 2, Beklan, 6, Riarson, 7 months, and Revali, 4, at their home Friday, Aug. 2, 2019. Stoker's two oldest children were conceived through in vitro fertilization. The two youngest were conceived naturally. Stoker, 39, and her husband, Brian, not pictured, struggled with unexplained infertility until seeking help from the Utah Fertility Center and the Footsteps to Fertility program in 2012.

Dallas Griffin had just arrived at work this spring when he heard a radio ad announcing a contest for a free round of in vitro fertilization.

“He heard it and called me real quick and said, ‘You have to listen to this. You have to go email them our story,’” his wife, McKayla Griffin, remembers.

Soon Dallas, 24, and McKayla, 23, were asked to make a video for the contest, sharing the details of their rounds of failed fertility treatments and a miscarriage. “We walked in [to a medical appointment] as a family of three,” she softly said in the video, “and left as a family of two.” They described going to therapy, facing overwhelming expenses and ultimately becoming foster parents.

Their video was posted on the website of Mix 103.1, a St. George station, along with four other finalists for the public to support, or shun, with their votes.

As Americans turn to contests and lotteries, pleas on social media and crowdfunding sites to cover the costs of health care, experts worry the trend draws attention to compelling individual stories and overshadows the need for reform and broad solutions.

On one hand, fertility contests and lotteries can help a couple get treatment and potentially have a baby, said Jessica Berg, dean at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law and professor of law, bioethics and public health. But it can seem “like a very offhand or casual way to deal with something that we generally view as being a more serious issue.”

About 10% to 20% of Utah couples of reproductive age have difficulty trying to have children, according to a 2018 report prepared by the University of Utah for the state Legislature. Of the 31 states it compared, Utah had the highest overall use of fertility treatment.

The state’s “strong family-oriented culture,” with an emphasis on early marriage and childbearing, may put extra stress on those dealing with infertility, the doctors and researchers who wrote the report noted.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Cost is one of the biggest barriers couples face, and they may need multiple treatments, depending on their situation, said Brenda Spearman, executive director of the Utah Infertility Resource Center. In vitro fertilization, or IVF, which is when an egg is fertilized by sperm in a laboratory and the embryo then is transferred into a uterus, can range from about $11,000 to $36,000, according to the U.’s report. And aside from the initial evaluations, it said, “the majority of fertility treatments are not covered by insurance.”

Thirteen states mandate that insurance cover infertility diagnosis and treatment, but Utah is not among them. The authors of the report listed some recommendations, including that Utah lawmakers use Medicaid to “reduce socioeconomic disparities” in who can pay for fertility treatments.

The Griffins, who live in the southern Utah city of Washington, don’t have insurance that covers fertility treatments. “We kind of don’t have any options left,” McKayla Griffin told viewers in their contest video.

“We’re excited for this opportunity to be able to grow our family and hopefully not have to send another child home, whether it be to their birth family or to heaven,” she said as she turned to look at her husband.

“It would be really wonderful,” Dallas Griffin said, “for us to have a child of our own.”

(Courtesy of McKayla Griffin) McKayla and Dallas Griffin became foster parents during their struggle with infertility. In June, the couple won a radio contest for a free round of in vitro fertilization.

Not your typical radio contest

Dallas Griffin almost didn’t answer when Mix 103.1 called in June to tell the Griffins they won the free round of IVF with the Utah Fertility Center. He didn’t recognize the number and thought it might be a telemarketer, he laughed.

“To be chosen was definitely a shock to both of us,” McKayla Griffin said.

It was difficult to share their story at first, “but after our miscarriage, I made a promise to myself and to our angel baby that his story would be told,” she said. By talking about their experiences, the couple hope it will educate and bring awareness to others.

“When we started treatments, I felt really alone, like I was less of a woman for not being able to do the one thing my body was designed to do,” she said. “I struggled a lot, and still do, with that, but it has gotten better.”

The Griffins are going for a consultation in September for their free round of IVF, and they hope to keep Mix 103.1 updated on their progress.

Giving away a free round of IVF is a bit different than other radio contests, said Myrna Hintze, business development specialist at Redrock Broadcasting, which owns the St. George station. “This wasn’t the typical draw your name out of the hat or caller number three.”

Hintze said the station received roughly 50 to 80 submissions and thousands of votes on the finalists’ videos. Like the Griffins, the other finalists described years of failed treatments, dealing with cancer, multiple miscarriages, negative pregnancy tests and emergency surgeries. One couple talked about “what could have been,” imagining how their child would now be in kindergarten if that first pregnancy test had been positive.

With promotions, the radio station looks to engage listeners and boost ratings, but Hintze said the IVF giveaway brought a chance to do “something a little more meaningful” than giving away concert tickets.

Hintze said Mix 103.1 decided to give the contest a try after seeing other radio stations and organizations do similar promotions in Utah and across the country.

In Salt Lake City, 97.1 ZHT is planning a similar giveaway — it told listeners in July to “get ready for the mother of all contests” and enter to win IVF treatments with the Reproductive Care Center, with winners announced in September. Voting is underway. A Logan couple started a YouTube channel about their personal struggles with infertility and have given grants with organizations such as the Utah Fertility Center to help others. And the Utah Fertility Center has done giveaways at various events.

The winner of the Mix 103.1 contest was selected partly by a panel made up of station staffers and a Washington County woman who had gone through infertility issues herself, Hintze said. The panelists reviewed written entries and picked a handful of finalists, who were then asked to submit short videos. The public voted for their favorites after watching the finalists’ videos on the station’s website.

Since Spearman, at the Utah Infertility Resource Center, and her husband went through IVF 20 years ago, she has noticed more opportunities like these pop up. One reason why, Spearman believes, is because couples who have struggled with infertility and who may have a large social media presence, think, “I was able to do this. How can I give back now?”

With these contests, though, come ethical questions, according to Berg, from Case Western, and Nir Eyal, professor of bioethics at Rutgers University.

Asking couples to create a video for a radio station about raw, difficult experiences can feel like making entertainment out of someone’s misery, Eyal said.

People were “infuriated” when a reality TV program called “De Grote Donorshow,” or “The Great Donor Show,” aired in 2007 in the Netherlands, Eyal said. The premise was three patients compete for a kidney donated by a woman who was terminally ill. The show later was revealed as a hoax, meant to “enhance understanding of the strife of kidney patients” and bring awareness to the need for people to become donors, Eyal said.

“For many of these couples, this really is heart-wrenching,” Berg said about the IVF contests. “I mean, this is something they’ve been trying for a baby for however long. … And to say, listen, if you can convince us you’re really the worst off, you could win.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ramsi Stoker pictured with her four children, from left to right, Beklan, 6, Banks, 2, Riarson, 7 months, and Revali, 4, Aug. 2. Stoker and her husband, Brian, not pictured, struggled with unexplained infertility until seeking help from the Utah Fertility Center and the Footsteps to Fertility program in 2012.

Suffering silently

In 2012, Ramsi and Brian Stoker of Holladay won a free round of IVF with the Utah Fertility Center through a Footsteps for Fertility Foundation 5K run. By Thanksgiving of that year, the Stokers found out they were pregnant.

Now Ramsi, 39, and Brian, 40, have four children, ranging in age from 6 years to 7 months. Their two oldest were born with the assistance of IVF, while their youngest two were conceived naturally, Ramsi Stoker said.

“We’re so blessed that we’re on the other side of it,” she said. “But I haven’t forgotten how hard it is and how lonely it is. You grieve every month when you’re trying. … You wait and wait. Every month when you find out it didn’t work, you go through that over and over."

When she and her husband were first struggling with infertility, Ramsi Stoker said, they didn’t really tell anyone. “Everyone kind of suffers silently,” she said.

Their insurance didn’t cover fertility treatments. They ended up spending thousands of dollars on a round of IVF that didn’t work, Ramsi Stoker said, in addition to everything they tried in the four years of other treatments before that.

After winning the IVF services, it was overwhelming to start sharing their story, Ramsi Stoker said, but it also helped them connect with other couples.

“All of a sudden, when we weren’t embarrassed about it or weren’t so private about it, we realized that there’s a lot of people that feel like this and are hurt by this," she said. “So, to feel not so isolated was a nice feeling.”

Plus, events like the Footsteps for Fertility 5K let these couples’ friends and family, who also feel heartbroken and helpless, show support.

“They want to help,” Ramsi Stoker said. “And most of them probably aren’t in a position to write a check to your doctor, but they’re probably in a position to buy a $30 or $40 raffle ticket and to come and walk on your behalf and cheer for you.”

Unlike the Griffins, the Stokers were selected in “a blind drawing,” which Ramsi Stoker said was probably “the fairest way to do it.” She said she isn’t sure how she feels about ethical questions raised by IVF giveaways, but she added that if doctors want to volunteer their services to help people who couldn’t otherwise afford it, that’s a good thing.

The Griffins and Stokers said they are thankful that they were given opportunities to have a baby, but they also think about the other couples who entered for that same chance. “It feels like a hopeless journey when you’re in it,” Ramsi Stoker said, “but there’s a lot of options.”

The report from the University of Utah said state lawmakers should support alternative routes to parenthood, such as fostering and adoption, in addition to increasing access to Utah-specific information about fertility treatments.

Not everyone will need IVF, which is one of the most expensive treatment options, said Joseph Stanford, one of the report’s authors. But legislators can reduce “socioeconomic disparities” in access to treatments through insurance policy and regulation, the report states.

A bill passed in Utah in 2014 encouraged insurance companies to allow an adoption benefit to be applied to fertility treatments, but “insurers have not exercised this option,” according to the report.

In 2018, Utah created a three-year pilot program requiring the insurance plan for public employees to allow people to receive a one-time, maximum benefit of $4,000 “toward the cost of assisted reproductive technology or adoption.”

Whether that pilot program works or not won’t be known until after 2021.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ramsi Stoker cradles the feet of her 7-month-old daughter Riarson on Aug. 2, 2019.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.