The Wohl Rose Garden opposite the Knesset was, for an hour, probably the safest square kilometer in the country, as it was covered with a sea of some 1,500 physicians and medical students wearing white coats printed with the Israel Medical Association emblem on the front and “Save Our Public Health System” on the back.
It was the largest such doctors’ protest in memory, and many present had never participated in a demonstration before.
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Anyone who might have suffered from heat prostration from the midday warmth, twisted an ankle on the grassy slope, had an asthma attack from the pollen, or worse, would have immediately been surrounded by medical professionals from all over the country eager to help. There was even a Magen David Adom bloodmobile at the side to collect donations from altruistic doctors and students who came to protest.
But “safe” and “patient friendly” could not be used to describe the hospitals and community clinics they left temporarily. There, hospital residents work shifts of more than 24 hours on end, veteran physicians face having to retire on embarrassing pensions because their shift work isn’t counted toward their pensions, and community physicians see 60 to 80 patients in a single day.
Due to the defects, including inequality and inadequate funding, of the public health system, thousands of physicians who moved abroad for better conditions, shifted to more comfortable and well-paying professions or only practice privately had no need to be at the demonstration.
There were also no senior Health Ministry officials present, including Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman, but there was the dean of one medical school, the chairmen of major hospital departments, and many young doctors worried about the future of their profession.
“The public health system is collapsing,” warned IMA chairman Dr. Leonid Eidelman as the doctors and students cheered. “It is the time for us to be heard. The population is expanding and aging. We have the know-how, but the lack of resources has weakened our ability to treat our patients. It is harder and harder to persuade a young resident to study unattractive medical specialties.”
Opposition head and Kadima Tzipi Livni said she had come to support a “struggle of which there is none more worthy... Over 7.5 million Israelis have the right to decent healthcare, and not two medical systems, one for the rich and one for the poor.”
Livni accused the government of “failing in this task” and called on the demonstrators to “roll up your sleeves.” She said she had in recent months visited medical centers and found even children lying in beds in corridors.
She charged that the main concern of the prime minister, who is also health minister, is “to do anything to extend the life of his government,” rather than to save and extend the lives of the sick.
Kadima MK Rachel Adatto, a gynecologist and lawyer by training, was one of three lawmakers (with MK Nitzan Horowitz of Meretz and MK Dov Henin of Hadash) to initiate a special Knesset recess session on the doctors’ plight that began after the protest.
“In a well-run state, this demonstration would be unnecessary,” Adatto said. “There are not enough doctors, and the healthcare system is run by Treasury bureaucrats who do not understand it.”
The Kadima MK called on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to sit with IMA and Treasury officials, and not leave until a solution is found to the crisis.
When Adatto mentioned the fact that Litzman said, when the sanctions began, that the past has shown “fewer people die when the doctors strike,” the crowd vigorously booed.
The system, she said, “suffers from insufficiency [of means] and the lack of intensive care [by the powers that be].”
She insisted that the Treasury has been using “spin” to make it seem as if private medical services in the public hospitals are what concern the IMA, and has tried to pit younger, underpaid doctors against the “high earning” veterans.
“I have a friend who went on pension after decades and earns NIS 7,800 a month,” Adatto said.
Habayit Hayehudi MK Zevulun Orlev, who has been hospitalized several times since being wounded in the Six Day War, said that even though he was in the coalition, he was not afraid to speak his mind in favor of the doctors – “something that other members of these parties were reluctant to do, even though they support you. I say you are not alone.”
MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al) focused on the medical system, where he learned and practiced obstetrics and gynecology.
“This is the struggle not of the doctors but of the entire public,” he said, earning the praise of IMA officials and later addressing the Knesset plenum’s special session.
There were no policemen guarding the Knesset against any possible violence by demonstrators.
“These are good guys. They don’t hurt anyone. They help people,” said one of the dozens of bus drivers waiting to take the physicians back to their workplaces.
A middle-aged man pushing a supermarket cart full of popsicles shouted at the top of his lungs: “May there be such demonstrations every day! Every flavor for only NIS 5,” he said, as the overheated doctors bought up his wares.
In the plenum, National Union MK and longtime burns surgeon Arye Eldad said he sympathized with most arguments of his colleagues initiating the session, but that he opposed doctors’ strikes and sanctions and had never participated in one.
Deputy Finance Minister Yitzhak Cohen of Shas, who represented the government at the session – attended by only 23 MKs – said that his own mother died after waiting for hours in an emergency room during a 1983 strike.
“The event is etched into my mind,” he said, adding that every public health system doctor received a 24 percent increase within the last two years as a result of arbitration of the 127- day strike held 11 years ago.
He said the Treasury was willing to raise the wages of only those doctors who are poorly paid, work in the periphery and or are in professions suffering manpower shortages.
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin counted 23 MKs in favor and none opposed to sending the motion to the Knesset House Committee to decide whether the Finance Committee or the Labor, Social Affairs and Health Committee would be in charge of discussing the health system’s woes.