Bikur Cholim’s 143-year history will end if grant not given

Jerusalem's historic hospital could shut down in a month without approval of NIS 30m. grant from Treasury, PM.

December 1, 2010 02:28
In the black, in more ways than one. The hospital is trying to change its reputation for being only

Bikur Cholim Hospital 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Jerusalem’s 143-year-old Bikur Cholim Hospital will shut down on December 31 unless Prime Minister and Health Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz approve a NIS 30 million grant through the end of 2011 to keep it going, senior hospital administrators and worker representatives said sadly at a press conference on Tuesday.

Dr. Yoram Blachar, chairman of the board of the voluntary organization that runs the hospital, and former chairman of the Israel Medical Association, said that a few years ago, the Treasury and then-Knesset Finance Committee chairman Ya’acov Litzman – who is now deputy health minister – awarded a NIS 60m. grant to another voluntary hospital, Netanya’s Laniado Medical Center, which was founded and is run by Sanz Hassidim.

Bikur Cholim, which is the only hospital in the center of Jerusalem, serves a large number of haredim among the 100,000 residents in its catchment area. The actual complex was purchased for $32m. about three years ago by Russian-Jewish businessman Arkadi Gaydamak, who promised, when running a failed campaign for mayor of Jerusalem, to keep it going for at least five years or even 15.

But while the payment covered most of the pension debts to its retired and 650 current employees, he stopped covering the hospital’s deficit in 2008. Now the hospital, whose administrators and workers say it could have a promising future, is tilting toward bankruptcy, and the most skilled and experienced doctors, nurses and technicians are looking for jobs elsewhere.

Gaydamak, who left the country for Russia over a year ago and returned temporarily to fight a criminal court case against him, is desperately looking for buyers, but few want to invest in a hospital with such a financial situation.

While the hospital is located on prime downtown real estate, the two main buildings have been designated historical edifices and therefore can’t be knocked down and replaced with high-rise apartments or offices.

Four months ago, the hospital’s director-general resigned because of the financial situation, and more recently Dudi Zilbershlag, the haredi board chairman of the hospital’s voluntary organization, resigned as well.

Zilbershlag is suspected by the Justice Ministry’s registrar of voluntary organizations of siphoning off NIS 1.6 million of hospital funds to the charitable soup kitchen service he founded, Mifaal haim.

Blachar said he was grateful to the Health Ministry for restoring the hospital’s “proper administration” status after Zilbershlag’s resignation, as it allowed the hospital to take bank loans. While Blachar wants the allegedly stolen money returned, “the amount is not enough to save the hospital.”

The hospital’s staffers, who have been hit by crisis after crisis in the last seven years, have reluctantly agreed, as part of a “recovery program” launched recently, to lend management 23 percent to 35% of their salaries (depending on how much they earn) – a total of NIS 1.1m. a month – for three or four months.

“Our dedicated workers deserve a medal for this,” said Blachar. But if they saw no sign of a saving grant from the government, they would leave to look for jobs elsewhere.

The hospital would be left with no workers, Blachar said, even if it were able to hold on after year’s end.

Blachar showed reporters a letter he sent Tuesday to Netanyahu, in which he pleaded for the grant.

Asked to comment on whether the prime minister, who is formally the health minister, would push for the NIS 30m. gift, his spokesman said on Tuesday evening, “When the letter arrives, we will read it, and it will be studied.”

The Jerusalem Post e-mailed the text of Blachar’s letter immediately to Netanyahu’s press office, but no reply was received.

Asked to comment, Litzman conceded that the hospital’s recent history was problematic. He did not say whether he would fight for the NIS 30m. grant, but did state that he supported the recovery plan.

The board chairman predicted that if the state grant were allocated, the hospital would achieve a balanced budget in 18 months, adding profitable new services and attracting more patients, especially to its high-level obstetrics/gynecology, intensive care and cardiology departments.

Some tangential real estate could also be sold, Blachar added.

He noted that Health Ministry inspectors had visited Bikur Cholim in recent months and found the standard of medicine “similar” to that at the prestigious and huge Hadassah University Medical Centers and Shaare Zedek Medical Center.

Bikur Cholim has received moral support from Knesset Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni (UTJ), the municipality and others, but no promise of financial support.

Annette Shahar, who has worked as a Bikur Cholim nurse for 39 years, said the patients got excellent care.

“Most of [the staffers] get low salaries and constantly shrinking benefits, but want to continue to work and support their families,” she said.

“But how much longer can we carry this burden while the government closes its ears and eyes and offers no help? Many staffers intend to leave, even though they care very much about the hospital.

We can’t imagine a Jerusalem without Bikur Cholim.”

Doctors’ workers committee chairman Dr. Effie Halperin, who has been at Bikur Cholim for 17 years, added, “We must wake up the government authorities, which are asleep.”

He declared that he had no private practice, but devoted himself to his patients in the hospital.

“It is like home. We all give a lot of attention to the patients and their families; we sit with them and talk,” he said. “This doesn’t happen in every Jerusalem hospital.”

Asked whether the capital’s three other main hospitals could take over if Bikur Cholim closed, the hospital’s advocates said there were not enough intensive-care beds for infants, so high-risk women would have to deliver elsewhere. Some 6,000 babies are born there each year.

An urgent-care facility is also needed in the center of a city that has known terror attacks for decades, they said.

Veteran surgery expert Prof.

Arye Durst said the other hospitals had queues stretching as long as six months for elective operations, which would become longer if Bikur Cholim disappeared.

He added that haredi patients who are reluctant to travel to a hospital on Shabbat and holidays would have no place within walking distance to seek help.

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