The High Court of Justice rapped petitioning physicians sharply on the knuckles Thursday, calling on medical residents demanding to resign over the labor agreement signed in August to return to work and continue negotiating with the Treasury.
At the end of an eight-hour hearing, a panel of three justices gave the residents an ultimatum: Agree to talks with the Finance Ministry within 72 hours, or respond to the National Labor Court over the state’s request to make those doctors who have resigned subject to contempt-of-court orders.
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At the end of the hearing, Court President Dorit Beinisch made it clear that negotiations would not be conducted unless residents went back to work.
She said residents should consider whether they were willing to return to their jobs and whether they were willing to return to the negotiating table.
If the young doctors decide to press ahead with negotiations, they are expected to return to their regular duties on Sunday morning. However, if they refuse to do so, they have been ordered to file their official response to the National Labor Court over the state’s request for the contempt-of-court orders.
Representatives of the residents, who want the agreement signed by the Treasury and the Israel Medical Association to be effective only three or four years instead of the agreed-upon nine, told the court earlier that they were not willing to continue negotiating and wanted to resign from their posts.
The National Labor Court had previously said that they could resign only individually for personal reasons and not en masse, as has been occurring in recent weeks.
According to the Health Ministry, 315 residents at hospitals in the central region and Haifa had resigned by Thursday afternoon and not shown up to work. They included 73 at Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center, 70 at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, 59 at Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba, 46 at Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, and 21 at Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Petah Tikva. No doctors at hospitals in Jerusalem or the periphery have resigned – only those at central, well-off hospitals.
The High Court panel headed by Beinisch, which included justices Hanan Melcer and Esther Hayut, heard the residents’ petition against a ruling by the National Labor Court that prevented the doctors from resigning collectively. The lawyers representing the residents said that the refusal to allow resignations constituted “modern day slavery” and violated the Basic Law on Freedom of Employment.
Beinisch criticized the residents, saying they should not have approached the High Court, which cannot deal with every resident’s case; rather, she said, they should have returned to negotiate with the Treasury.
“We should have rejected your petition based on a lack of integrity, but we did not do so because of the special situation,” she said.
“We still think that the talks can continue. If you don’t want to be in the picture, then don’t be. You were the ones who raised the issue. The question is who among you wants to act further,” Beinisch went on. “There is a signed labor agreement. The court cannot shorten it. Allowing you to resign will not solve the problem.”
Melcer also criticized the doctors for resigning and refusing to go to work without waiting for the court to rule.
“You appealed to the High Court. There is a culture when one appeals to the High Court; one waits for the hearing,” he said. He urged the residents to give the negotiations “another two weeks.”
Speaking on Thursday at the Dead Sea Conference of the National Institute for Health Policy Research, embattled Health Ministry director-general Prof.
Ronni Gamzu gave a long speech that included comments on the doctors’ unrest. He said he was “pleasantly surprised” that the Finance Ministry was even willing to discuss their demands after the labor accord was already signed.
But, Gamzu continued, “it seems that the Treasury is stuck conceptually, not creatively, and thinks that this can be run by using force. From my experience in struggles with the Treasury, I believe that without a third party who will have the confidence of [both] sides, the conflict will get worse than ever. The Treasury is regarded by the residents as apathetic, stubborn and contriving, even if it isn’t.”
He added that the young doctors were struggling “without deciding what is more important – repairing the defects with more money or grants to young doctors, dropping specialists’ shift work, shortening the labor accord or eliminating time clocks. They keep changing their minds, and it’s hard to follow.
They themselves are confused.”
The director-general also criticized the residents’ use of public relations representatives, lobbyists and other “spin doctors” who, he said, have helped plunged the dispute into chaos.
“Perhaps the Treasury wants a different [Health Ministry] director- general, more conformist, more comfortable for them, not one with his own ideas. It would not be terrible, they think, if he is less energetic, talented and so on,” said Gamzu, referring to pressure from the Treasury for him to resign.
“Instead, they think, there should be a director-general who fires hospital directors, sends home heads of the health system and replaces Israeli medical school graduates with those from foreign countries,” he continued.
“This is difficult for them to ask me to do. Many have hinted to me that I should resign, and they will support me. [But] I will not abandon [the fight].”