Israel set to expand public health services in rocket-battered South

The proposal will include expanding the facilities at Beersheba’s Soroka University Medical Center and building a second hospital in the “capital of the Negev.”

Helicopter in front of Soroka University Medical Center. (photo credit: SOROKA MEDICAL CENTER)
Helicopter in front of Soroka University Medical Center.
Health Minister Yael German will raise at Sunday’s cabinet meeting a proposal to “strengthen public medicine in the Negev” as part of a general plan of the Netanyahu government to bolster the South after Operation Protective Edge.
The proposal will include expanding the facilities at Beersheba’s Soroka University Medical Center and - within another decade - building a second hospital in the “capital of the Negev.”
The ministry issued a statement to health reporters on Thursday evening that was so unexpected that the minister’s top aides said they were surprised by it. The ministry said it would also “strengthen” the tipat halav (well-baby) clinics and open night medical facilities in the South as well as expand rehabilitation facilities and increase medical manpower in the area.
German explained in her announcement that one of the central problems of the medical system is the gaps between the center of the country and the outlying rural areas. The number of hospital beds is significantly smaller than the average number of beds in the center.
“Soroka proved itself again during Protective Edge, and it deserves all praise. Strengthening that hospital in addition to building a new public hospital and expanding tipat halav facilities in the community strengthens the South and public health there,” she said.
The announcement quoted Finance Minister Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party of which German is a member, that "the decision to set up a new public hospital in the South is meant first of all to strengthen southern residents and give them quality medical care to reduce the gaps and improve the quality of life for them.”
Health Ministry director-general Prof Arnon Afek said the plan was the result of a committee he headed in recent months to bolster medical services in the South. The population in the area is due to swell by at least 300,000 people by 2025 as a result of natural growth, and the aging of the population requires more medical care. In addition, a large number of military personnel and their families will move there to live in the “Bahad City” where training bases are being constructing to replace those being moved from the center.
In a phone conversation from New York, Afek told The Jerusalem Post that public funds will be found to build the hospital. But as the government has not constructed any public hospitals of its own for many decades, the owner does not necessarily have to be the Health Ministry or the new government hospital authority that has been set up. It could be constructed by one of the public health maintenance organizations, he said, adding that he had already spoken to heads of Clalit Health Services and Maccabi Health Services -- the two largest -- about the possibility.
But Afek insisted that a new hospital in Beersheba would not include private medical services (SHARAP), as had been agreed by then-deputy health minister Ya’acov Litzman and then-finance minister Yuval Steinitz a few years ago for a hospital being built by Assuta Medical Centers in Ashdod. “We will not make the Ashdod mistake again,” said Afek. The Ashdod facility is due to open next year.
German stated earlier this year that she will cancel SHARAP services at the Ashdod hospital, but as the contracts were signed with Assuta years ago, it was not clear how this could be accomplished. “I have had meetings with Assuta management to discuss the cancellation of private medical services,” she said.
When the committee headed by German a few months ago announced after a year’s deliberation that the government would add NIS 1 billion to public healthcare and said Ashdod would not have SHARAP, Assuta president Prof. Yehoshua Shemer said this would be “impossible.”
Afek said that NIS 300 million of the NIS 1 billion would be allocated despite the current cuts in government spending resulting from Protective Edge but did not say if, when and how the remaining NIS 700 million would be provided.
As for opposition by Soroka director-general Dr. Ehud Davidson to the building an additional hospital in Beersheba because he wanted his hospital to be expanded instead, Afek said: “Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa have more than one hospital. There is a limit how much Soroka can be expanded.
As to the suggestion that the new hospital be located in another town in the Negev, Afek said that a medical center “needs the infrastructure that a big city can offer.” The director-general said that doctors and nurses would move to Beersheba to work there, and that young graduates from the new Galilee Medical School in Safed would also be encouraged to settle there.