Jerusalem’s Bikur Cholim Hospital on its last legs

Unpaid staff stays away from hospital; employees: The government didn’t want us to continue to exist, and it will get its wish.

Bikur Cholim Protest 311 (photo credit: Yossi Lipsitz)
Bikur Cholim Protest 311
(photo credit: Yossi Lipsitz)
Jerusalem’s venerable Bikur Cholim Hospital – which has been almost emptied out of patients by the Health Ministry – seems to be nearing its end, as numerous staffers – unpaid for two months – have refused to come to work.
While it is likely that the financially stable Shaare Zedek Medical Center a few kilometers away will soon take it over in exchange for tens of millions of shekels from the Treasury, veteran staffers at Bikur Cholim predicted on Wednesday that within 10 years or less, it would be swallowed up completely by Shaare Zedek, with no hospital remaining at the corners of Hanevi’im and Strauss Streets in the center of the capital.
Bikur Cholim, established in the Old City by haredi Jews almost 190 years ago and transferred 80 years ago to its current location, has suffered from severe financial problems and bleeding of funds. The ministry ordered the hospital’s emergency room to shut down three days ago, and the 11 remaining premature babies in the neonatal intensive care unit are due to be shifted to units at Shaare Zedek and Hadassah University Medical Center unless an agreement is reached on Wednesday night to at least temporarily bring back staffers. A deal of this kind is regarded as unlikely.
Shaare Zedek director-general Prof. Jonathan Halevy and his staff have been involved in almost-daily negotiations for months to reach an agreement with numerous authorities, organizations and unions so it can run Bikur Cholim. But with the downtown hospital’s infrastructure deteriorating badly and staffers losing chunks of their pensions and other benefits, it seems more likely that Shaare Zedek will eventually both hire the majority of Bikur Cholim’s staff and also transfer departments to its own campus opposite Mount Herzl.
Shaare Zedek was chosen recently by the government to make a bid for taking over Bikur Cholim because it is more financially stable than the two Hadassah University Medical Centers.
The remaining clientele in recent years has been haredi Jews living in the north and center of Jerusalem who regarded it as a convenient place for care, especially on Shabbat and holidays and preferred its catering to their ultra-Orthodox sensibilities and needs.
Russian-Jewish “oligarch” Arkady Gaydamak, the building’s owner, had promised to keep the hospital running for at least seven years – and maybe 15 – and did make it possible for staffers to receive some pension funds, but he cut back financial assistance not long after he took over the physical facilities. Gaydamak purchased the hospital’s buildings in hopes of winning votes from ultra- Orthodox Jews in his failed run for mayor of Jerusalem more than four years ago.
The Health Ministry has ordered Bikur Cholim’s medical director, veteran obstetrician/ gynecologist Dr. Raphael Pollack – who himself has not been paid for two months – not to admit any more high-risk pregnant women or any other new patients. Only 12 internal medicine department patients, 12 complex nursing patients, two dozen obstetrics patients and their babies remain.
Ministry officials said the shrinking of the staff is not a result of the current nurses’ strike, but because staffers refuse to work unpaid. One nurse said she couldn’t work through Hanukka because schools are on vacation and she couldn’t afford to hire babysitters for her own children without getting a salary.
An important meeting between Shaare Zedek heads and union representatives began on Wednesday evening, but no news was reported.
During the last 10 years of Bikur Cholim’s most serious financial problems, the hospital delivered almost 50,000 babies, employed 700 employees who were paid a total of NIS 2 billion shekels and treated hundreds of thousands of patients in its 200 inpatient beds and outpatient clinics.
That gives hospital veterans some satisfaction, but they bemoaned the fact that “the government didn’t want us to continue to exist, and it will get its wish.”