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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
Hundreds of polio victims demonstrated on Jerusalem's Rehov Shazar in front of the Central Bus Station Sunday morning, blocking the roads into the city and forcing traffic to take other routes.
The protesters, most of them in wheelchairs, are demanding that the government implement the law passed earlier this year to provide funding for polio victims. The bill was passed with the support of 83 MKs including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
According to the law, polio victims were for the first time entitled to receive monthly stipends and a one-time grant specifically for their condition in addition to the disability payments. However, the law has not yet come into effect.
The demonstrators claimed that the Treasury was postponing their payments for at least a year, leaving them in a precarious position.
The government took responsibility because it conducted operations on those afflicted with polio in the 1950s and 1960s, worsening their condition instead of alleviating the problem. There are approximately 1,100 polio victims in Israel who were disabled by the virus shortly after the establishment of the state, before a vaccination was available.
Thirty to 40 years after first being diagnosed, most of the victims are now experiencing post-polio syndrome, leading to increased disability. They earn less and their living costs are increasing each year, explained Esther Allaluf, a member of the Organization for Polio Victims in Israel. Many are unable to work, and some need helpers that cost $1,500 a month in addition to the cost of medical treatment. Given their condition, Allaluf declared "We needed the help yesterday."
Yohai Dok, one of the protesters, complained that the government had reneged on its promise. While he was reluctant to strike, he admitted, "without pressure nothing happens in this country." Another demonstrator, Yona Tzachbash, herself in a wheelchair, lamented the growing number of polio victims dying each year.
Pushing for increased aid, she asked, "What are they waiting for, all of us to die?"
A sign held by one of the demonstrators in a wheelchair reflected the mood of the group: "When will the [government] allow us to live honorably?"
Under the proposal to be discussed at next Sunday's cabinet meeting, the annual cost of compensation to polio victims, including one-time payments, is estimated at NIS 360 million, according to the Finance Ministry.
According to the ministry's proposals, the monthly allotments for polio victims with 80% disability will not change. Those with less disability will receive compensation equal to that given to victims of radiation for ringworm during the early years of the state. Instead of a one-time grant, polio victims will receive compensation over 10 years of NIS 500 to NIS 1,000 a month. Eligibility for treatment and medical equipment that is not included in the basket of health services will be in accordance with National Insurance Institute disability payments, with rates according to functional disability. This income will not be taxable and not regarded as income when pensions are considered.
Finance Ministry director-general Yarom Ariav and deputy budgets director Raviv Sobel met on Sunday afternoon with representatives of organizations representing the disabled, including polio victims. The officials said they did not intend to cancel the Polio Victims Compensation Law and that they will not require all work accident victims to undergo repeated disability tests.
The two sides said they would meet for intensive talks to resolve their differences over the amendments proposed in the polio law.
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