Activist's vision helps Israelis fight for their rights

Says only half of those eligible claim social benefits.

A New York-based social worker and social activist has initiated a new project that will help thousands of patients released from hospitals daily to understand and access essential benefits granted by the Israeli government. Florence Galkin, who has dedicated the past 14 years of her life to improving the rights of Israeli citizens via her non-profit advocacy group Mashov, has so far invested more than $35,000 in on-going research for Hadassah University Hospital to establish Israel's first-ever comprehensive, computerized guide to the rights of the sick and elderly following hospitalization. "It always bothered me that patients receive help and assistance while in the hospital but once they leave, they either do not have the knowledge or are not able to access their entitlements, and this is also the situation in the United States," stated Galkin in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, adding that she planned not only to invest more money in the project but wanted to ensure personally that it would really work to improve citizens' knowledge of rights here. The groundwork for the project, which will see the establishment of an information center manned by social workers and volunteers in the lobby of Hadassah-University Hospital Ein Kerem (with a mobile unit in Hadassah-University Hospital Mount Scopus), has also led to a growing collaborative effort between various government ministries, the National Insurance Institute (NII), the health funds and several non-profit organizations including the Joint Distribution Center's elderly outreach branch Eshel, which joined the project recently. The information center, which is scheduled to be launched mid-2007, will initially work with elderly patients and eventually provide services to all patients and their relatives. "Hadassah believes this is a very important step for patient relations," commented Rita Abramoff, director of both hospitals' social work departments. "There is a real lack of information and it is only available if you ask for it." "Currently there are private companies peddling the patients on a daily basis, some of them posing as social workers, offering services for the sick and elderly once they leave the hospital," she continued. "We want to build a center that will provide patients with information on these companies and stop them from wandering around the hospital unchecked." In many cases, she said, elderly patients were entitled to personal carers, medical equipment and further check ups either from their health funds or from the NII but officious bureaucracy made attaining these services extremely difficult, especially for those who did not speak Hebrew or were weakened by their hospital stay. A 2004 study by the National Institute for Health Policy and Services looking into hospital discharge plans found that two weeks after discharge, only 46 percent of the patients received the services planned for them; while 29% did not receive any of these services. Mashov and Hadassah's own study into the issue, conducted earlier this year and focusing on the elderly population, found similar figures and also noted that even among those who were aware of their rights, many were unable to withstand the bureaucratic and physical burden involved in their actualization. "Information alone is not sufficient," concluded the report. "Consequently, the service of providing information on rights and services must also offer assistance in their realization, where needed." "The outcome [of these studies] is a clear statement that there is very little accessibility to rights and entitlements for patients," said Galkin, who helped to establish, an on-line US system aimed at providing information on benefits allowances to the aged. "There are language barriers, physical limitations, bureaucratic difficulties and information that is never explained or clarified." Galkin said the hospital project was an off-shoot of a similar center in Jerusalem's Kiryat Yovel neighborhood, supported by Mashov, to provide single parents with vital access to information about their rights. Also a united effort between several government ministries including the NII, the Shelter for Battered Women, women's advocacy organization WIZO and ITACH, a legal group for single parents, Galkin said Mashov helped fuel the growth of the Center for Optimization of Rights and Community Involvement. Today, she said, there were more than 80 volunteers and social workers at the center, and WIZO has already created a similar bureau in the Jerusalem suburb of Pisgat Ze'ev. "There is a large group of single parents who do not know what they are entitled to by law," said Gilat Sfive-Lavi, a social worker and director at the Kiryat Yovel center. "Information is power, but many of our clients are so busy being single parents - working and taking care of the home and children - they have no time to research their rights or surf the web for information. We have to help them." "Instead of producing a new body, we have worked together with government bodies to enhance existing structures and provide services in a much more efficient way," said Galkin, who shuttles between Israel and the US to oversee Mashov's various projects, referring to both the Hadassah project and the one in Kiryat Yovel. "Unless we teach people how to lobby for their rights and encourage an active citizenry, then there is no real engagement between the government and the people," she said. "It is a process of change and step by step we will change the system."