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The High Court of Justice instructed the Health Ministry on Monday to explain within two weeks why it does not halt its plans to privatize health services for school pupils aged six to 14.
The order was issued by the court at the request of the Israel Medical Association (IMA), which objects to the scheme initiated by the Finance Ministry and carried out against the Health Ministry's will.
The IMA also asked for restraining orders against the Health Ministry, which would be required to explain why it does not declare that the National Health Insurance Law requires the giving of preventive health services to pupils in the same volume set down when it was passed by the Knesset in 1994.
The Health Ministry commented that it was preparing its response to the High Court within 14 days.
The Treasury wants to switch responsibility for school health services - including vaccinations, hearing and posture tests and health education programs - from public health nurses and doctors who work for the Health Ministry to a for-profit organization called the Association for Public Health.
Since the National Health Insurance Law came into effect in 1995, these services have gradually been pared down, and the number of public health nurses and doctors working in schools has been drastically reduced.
The IMA declared that Israel's public health services used to be admired around the world for their equity and efficacy, but that now they are a shadow of themselves. Investing in preventive health services, said the IMA, saves money because if they don't exist, many diseases emerge in later years that are much more expensive to treat.
In the '90s, there was an attempt to supply school health services through a private company, "but it failed completely, and as a result, in 1996, the Knesset restored government responsibility for these services, which were rehabilitated. But a few years later, the Treasury's continued effort to privatize these services led to a serious crisis. Today," charged the IMA, "school health services are on the edge of a catastrophe, with vaccination coverage at dangerously low levels, the ratio between pupils and nurses almost twice as large and the ratio of pupils to doctors even larger."
In the IMA's suit, the doctors noted that the Treasury wanted to privatize remaining public health services, including Tipat Halav (well-baby) stations. The Treasury, said the IMA, has refused to transfer the rest of the budget owed to the Health Ministry for this year - already approved by the Knesset Finance Committee - if it doesn't sign the agreement with the Association for Public Health.
With a "budgetary pistol aimed at its temple, the Health Ministry has been forced to go along," the IMA said, even though public health experts have unanimously condemned the Treasury's plans.
No economic benefits from privatization of the school health service have been shown, the IMA maintained. "The Health Ministry is transferring professional responsibility for health services to over one million pupils to a body that has no professional ability or experience," said the IMA.