The National Insurance Institute must change its procedures and place the needs of citizens first, Knesset State Control Committee chairman Amnon Cohen said on Tuesday.

Cohen spoke during a Knesset meeting discussing the comptroller’s January 22 findings that portrayed a dismal picture of the NII’s handling of people applying for disability benefits.

The NII’s medical committees determine the percentage of an individual’s disability according to a list of medical examinations that determine disability pensions.

Over the past few years, public inspection committees, disability organizations and members of Knesset have raised concerns over the medical committees’ service quality and lack of independence from the NII, which pays the doctors’ salaries, the State Comptroller’s Report noted.

“Any person suffering is a world in itself – and we must respond individually to each one. We must not attach a label of impostor to each applicant and I feel a new spirit in the NII and the Welfare and Social Services Ministry,” State Comptroller Joseph Shapira wrote.

In 2008, the NII received 86,882 claims for general disability pensions, according to the report. The comptroller’s office examined a representative sample of these claims for the quality of service provided to the claimants. The office found serious deficiencies in the quality of service, including lengthy delays in treatment, unnecessary paperwork and procedures, and violations of rights and privacy – all in violation of the law and procedures, by NII doctors and officials.

According to NII rules, when someone applies for recognition as severely disabled (80 percent disability or more), processing the claim should take a maximum of three weeks – a special shortened “green light” channel. The comptroller examined a sample of 31 claimants for severe disability, and found that an NII doctor did not approve referral to the green light channel for 13 of them. Furthermore, the wait time for the 18 people approved for the green channel averaged 59 days – an average of 38 days overdue.

Regarding the unnecessarily burdensome procedures, the NII decided, as of August 2008, to consolidate medical examinations for a given applicant on to one day. This plan was not, however, implemented and the claimants were required to come in for examinations on several days.

Independent organizations working to promote disability rights found the state comptroller’s report unsurprising.

Livnat Poran, CEO of the Center for Medical Rights, called on the medical committees to act independently of the NII, the body that pays them, as is customary in many countries in Europe and North America.

Prof. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, director-general of the National Insurance Institute, rejected Poran’s assertion that medical committees were separate from the NII in other countries and said, “We care for the disabled as nobody else does. I am proud of the National Insurance Institute.”

Mor-Yosef said that the Comptroller’s Report was prepared in 2010, based on facts and figures from 2008, and since then changes have been implemented to improve the situation.

“We improved infrastructure in the committees, arranged academic training for doctors and seminars for physicians and secretaries of the committees, we established a service to citizens free of charge in Haifa and Beersheba called ‘Guiding Hand,’ we consolidated committees, and today all material goes online from the health funds to the NII,” Mor-Yosef added.

He defended the doctors at the National Insurance Institute and said they were the same “white angels” found in hospital emergency rooms in the morning hours.

Welfare and Social Services Minister Meir Cohen (Yesh Atid) said that he had paid unannounced visits to medical committee hearings, and found “a lack of professionalism, unskilled doctors and inappropriate wages.”

“We are determined to set a timetable to fix the approach of the NII, and Prof. Mor-Yosef is working every day to change this approach and is committed to it,” Cohen said.

The minister also called for the establishment of an independent authority for medical committees and promised to support the bill on the matter sponsored by MK Adi Kol (Yesh Atid).

According to the Comptroller’s Report, NIS 8.6 billion was paid in general disability and work disability pensions in 2008. An average of 224,000 people received monthly disability pensions, and 108,000 new claims were filed over the course of the year. To handle the claims, the NII held some 360,000 medical discussions, and the medical committees’ operating budget was around NIS 134 million.

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