Ministries promise underground Ashkelon ER by 2014

Barzilai project faced lengthy delays following haredi pressure to move facility after pagan bones unearthed.

barzilai hospital ashkelon 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
barzilai hospital ashkelon 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Finance and Health ministries committed themselves on Monday not to delay the completing of the fortified underground emergency department at Ashkelon’s Barzilai Medical Center beyond the scheduled deadline at the end of 2014.
Until now, the increased costs due to delays made the scheduled dedication of the building more and more distant.
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The government hospital in the south was the target of missiles and rockets during the Cast Lead offensive and at other periods. Its existing emergency facilities are very crowded.
But the construction project became a national issue in 2009 and 2010 when Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) fought a battle against it, ignited by the haredi organization Atra Kadisha, because it required the relocation of graves found on the site that archeologists said belonged to pagans from the Byzantine time but Litzman said were of Jews.
Litzman demanded that the much-needed facility be built on a more-distant parking lot, and when he temporarily persuaded the cabinet to change the site, then-Health Ministry director-general Dr. Eitan Hai-Am resigned his post in protest.
Relocation would also have heaped extra costs on the project. Even the chief rabbis had ruled that protecting Jews from Hamas rockets and missiles was more important than respecting the rest of the dead.
Committee chairman Ronnie Bar-On (Kadima) called on State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss to investigate why building has been so delayed despite a final cabinet decision to complete it as soon as possible.
“Everyone agrees that the fortified emergency room is urgently needed in normal times and in emergencies.
Such a large city, which is in the line of fire, must have a suitable answer for attacks on the population,” he said.
Kadima MK Rachel Adatto said the project has already taken seven years for approval and the beginning of construction. Today, some NIS 60 million in funding has not yet been supplied, and since approval was delayed, the ministry transferred it to fortify hospitals in Nahariya and Safed.
To build a whole hospitalization tower in addition to the underground facilities, a total of NIS 300m. must be spent. But the government approved earlier this year the establishment of a NIS 500m. hospital in Ashdod to be run by a private company owned by Maccabi Health Services, said Adatto.
MK Yaacov Edri said that every further delay will increase the costs of the Barzilai facility, while MK Yoel Hasson called on the government to “tell the truth whether it is really interested in fortifying the hospital.”
Barzilai director-general Dr. Shimon Scharf stressed that construction of the facility “is being carried out slowly and will apparently be halted, and if [the government] really wants to increase hospital beds in the periphery, it will be mandatory that the hospitalization tower is completed as well. Without such a building, there isn’t room for a single bed” in Barzilai.
Ashkelon Mayor Benny Vakhnin told the committee said the hospital serves a population of 500,000 residents in the city and its environs, and that because of physical conditions there, patients are not getting the treatment they deserve.
“The hospital was built 50 years ago, and patients have died because of the crowding and poor conditions,” he maintained.
Health Ministry deputy director-general Yehuda Ron, who is responsible for planning, said that work on the skeleton of the emergency department has begin and will cost NIS 80m. That will take 16 months to complete.
By the end of all construction work at the end of 2014, 250 additional beds will be accommodated, he said.
The ministry’s development budget has been cut by NIS 120m., but despite a decision that this will not affect future commitments, the reduction will influence these projects. Ron said the costs of raw materials have jumped by 300 percent in the last few years, “and beyond the skeleton of the building, we will have a problem finishing the project.
Of 40,000 square meters, we can finish only 18,000 of them,” he said.
Finance Ministry budgets department liaison for health, Yair Zilberstein, said that the Health Ministry – with its budget deficit – asked for help in future projects.
“I promise that in a joint effort, we will not delay construction. I can’t commit myself to a date when we agree, but the project will not be halted.”
Litzman declined to take responsibility for the last 16 months in which construction of the building’s skeleton was delayed. It was not the ministry’s fault, he said.
“If somebody died at Barzilai because of crowding, he must file a complaint. Twoand- a-half years ago, I wanted to fortify the existing emergency department at a cost of NIS 300m., because I knew there would be delays, but I was prevented from doing this.”
Deputy Finance Minister and Shas MK Yitzhak Cohen, who is an Ashkelon resident, said Barzilai was discriminated against and that no one wanted to fortify it during Cast Lead, even though the finance minister said there was money for this.
The Knesset committee, said Bar-On, will take another look at the project in six months and determine whether the two ministries are keeping their commitments to residents of the Ashkelon area.