Treasury threatens to take striking doctors to labor court

Finance Ministry calls for time clocks and structural changes for better conditions; IMA calls move ‘shameful.’

May 31, 2011 03:03
Hospitalized man [illustrative]

man in hospital bed with nurse 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

The Finance Ministry will seek restraining orders or other action from a labor court in a few days to prevent the Israel Medical Association from launching a general strike or “working by the book,” actions that would “further harm patients,” Treasury wage chief Ilan Levin told reporters in Jerusalem on Monday.

During the past two months, sanctions by doctors – mostly in public hospitals around the country – have been carried out intermittently.

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“We are not pressured,” Levin told health and finance reporters. “But the clock on the IMA website is shown clicking down to the deadline. We in the government have responsibility for public services, and we cannot wait until the end of June with a gun on the table. We can’t let the public be hurt if the doctors do this. We can’t wait till the end of June with a gun on the table. We have to take action now.”

Levin said he was waiting for Health Ministry director-general Dr. Ronni Gamzu to give him documents showing exactly how many medical procedures were not carried out due to the doctors’ sanctions, causing patients to be hurt. Then he would present them to the labor court, “which will not take action without this documentation.

“Negotiations are preferred,” said Levin, “but if in the coming days, the public sector doctors do not forgo their demands for a cross-the-board wage increase of 42 percent, and agree to the installation of time clocks, we will go to court. We sent a letter to the IMA with new proposals, but we received no formal answers.”

The Treasury wage division has offered to hike its doctors’ wage expenditures by 8% in exchange for them agreeing to use time clocks to show when they are in the medical institutions that pay their wages, but the IMA has said they perform work outside the building as well and that such supervision would be “shameful.”

Levin also issued a new offer to give a total of 28% pay increases if the IMA agrees to structural changes in addition to the time clocks that would keep more specialists in the hospitals on evenings, nights and weekends rather than rely mostly on interns and residents. Such increases would cost the Treasury about NIS 500 million, he said.

The Treasury official said he was willing to reduce duty hours to a maximum of 18 in one shot rather than the longer hours worked by residents and interns. A five-day week in which doctors would be able to have days off and work longer hours while getting overtime pay was also offered.

The Treasury and the IMA have been negotiating a new wage contract more than a decade after talks over a previous contract led to 127 days of sanctions in 2000.

The IMA did not give detailed reactions to the Treasury proposals, but said that ministry officials “realize that if the doctors work according to the book, the public health system will collapse.

That is why they feel they are in a race against time. But we feel we have been in such a race for 10 years, and the only reason that the system has not collapsed until now is because the IMA has shown responsibility and taken the ills of the public system onto its back.”

The Treasury is “unwilling to solve the health system’s problems and to carry out real reform to save it,” the IMA added.

The labor court, the doctors said, “is not a threat for us, as the IMA is taking moderate steps out of responsibility to the public,” and when the court goes into the depth of the problems and sees the way negotiations have been held, it will be on the IMA’s side.

Kadima MK Rachel Adatto (a physician by profession) said the Treasury’s announcement that it would go to the labor court only proved that its handling of the crisis so far showed it did not intend to reach agreement with the doctors.

“Instead of holding serious negotiations, the threat puts the ministry in a bad light,” she said. She criticized Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is formally health minister, for not intervening in the long dispute. Levin, who was present at the briefing along with Treasury deputy budgets chief Moshe Bar-Simantov, said: “We don’t want to be accused of footdragging. We know how to negotiate.”

He pointed to successful talks with the high school teachers’ union that will raise salaries by 51% if they work 16 hours a week longer. The Treasury will offer more benefits, he said, if doctors agree to structural changes that will increase the number of doctors in the periphery, help mainly younger doctors and increase the number of physicians in specialties with too little manpower.

Bar-Simantov said public hospital administrators are openly in favor of time clock use and opposed to acrossthe- board wage increases, including to senior doctors who also work elsewhere, because the management cannot afford to pay such increases.

On Tuesday, all hospitals from Rehovot southward, including in Jerusalem, will follow a reduced Shabbat schedule. They include Barzilai, Kaplan, Soroka, Bikur Cholim, the two Hadassah University Medical Centers and Shaare Zedek. The affected psychiatric and geriatric hospitals include Nes Zion, Be’er Ya’acov, Eitanim, Kfar Shaul, Shmuel Harofeh and Hartzfeld.

On Wednesday, the same sanctions will be imposed in the center of the country. The affected hospitals will be Sheba, Tel Aviv Sourasky, both the Beilinson and Hasharon Campuses of the Rabin Medical Center, Schneider, Wolfson, Assaf Harofeh, Meir, Shalvata, Geha, Beit Rivka, Beit Loewenstein, Pardesia, Netanya’s geriatric hospital and Abarbanel.

On Thursday, only oncological surgery and other urgent operations will be performed in all the hospitals. The rest of hospital activities will carry on.

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