Cityfront: On the mend

Bikur Cholim Hospital showing signs of recovery.

Bikur Cholim Hospital 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Bikur Cholim Hospital 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Chairman of the board of Bikur Cholim Hospital, Dudi Zilbershlag, a well-known haredi figure in the city, is very happy. For the past year or so, the oldest hospital in the city has no longer been in the news due to employee demonstrations and financial disasters as had been the case for a decade.
For some time, there was a serious possibility that the only medical facility in the city center could close down, which caused much anxiety among the security forces in the aftermath of the second intifada. After one terrorist attacks in the city center, Jerusalem police chief Micky Levy had said, “It is clear that Jerusalem cannot afford to lose such an important facility in the city center as a hospital with a well-equipped emergency ward, and today’s attack has proven it again,” recalled a police spokesman. He added that Bikur Cholim’s location still made it very important, even though the city was now relatively quiet and secure.
Today, not only is Bikur Cholim saved from that threat, but its management and board of directors are working on turning it into a modern, well-equipped hospital that could give the big ones like Hadassah and Shaare Zedek a run for their money, at least in certain areas. Bikur Cholim already has a highly regarded maternity department and children’s ward, and it has recently developed one of the best neonatal units in the city. According to Zilbershlag, in some cases premature babies are sent there from Hadassah. Zilbershlag says his aim is to bring the only hospital in the city center back to its former glory before it was beset by financial problems and employee demonstrations. “With God’s help, we’re almost there,” he beams.
Bikur Cholim was saved thanks to a generous grant from Russian oligarch Arkadi Gaydamak, who agreed to purchase the hospital from the liquidator appointed by the state. Although Gaydamak is no longer in the country, following his painful defeat in the 2008 mayoral elections and accusations by the Israeli justice system of money laundering, Zilbershlag asserts that he has respected all his commitments regarding the hospital.
“Without batting an eye, he agreed to pay, over the course of five years, the NIS 32 million for the purchase of Bikur Cholim, including additional debts incurred by wage agreements. That has enabled us, among other things, to pay the pensions and compensations of the employees who have retired or have been laid off.”
BIKUR HOLIM was established in 1854 as a private haredi community initiative inside the walls of the Old City. It was a response to the threat of the medical services offered by the Anglican Christian Mission, which had just opened a modern hospital. The rabbis feared it would also serve as a mission to convert the Jewish patients. Thus Baron James de Rothschild, under the auspices of the Austrian government, founded the first Jewish hospital inside the Old City. Later on, the bold decision was made to purchase a plot outside the walls to build the hospital in a “hygienic and healthy neighborhood.”
The new building, whose beautiful gates were designed by Bezalel artist Ze’ev Raban, was inaugurated in April 1925, the same year that the Hebrew University was established on Mount Scopus. But the organization that founded the hospital couldn’t finance its completion.
The following year, fearing that the project might be abandoned, chief rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook issued an urgent call for donations to help finish the building.
That was not the last time the organization had financial problems.
Over the years, since it was a public hospital owned by an association and following unsuccessful management, Bikur Cholim suffered budgets cuts.
By the end of the 1980s it had accumulated a huge debt. By 1991 the deficit stood at NIS 110 million, which threatened to prevent it from continuing to function. In fact, the decision to close it down was about to be implemented, but during the days of the intifada it became clear that a hospital in the city center was something Jerusalem could not do without. The decision was canceled, but the hospital’s financial situation grew worse, and the employees began to feel the effects. People were not paid on time, and there was a severe shortage of medical equipment (patients were asked to bring their own pyjamas and medication).
Later on, the employee committee found out that the pensions were not being paid and veteran employees, who had given 30 and more years of their lives to the hospital, discovered they had no pension when they retired.
IN AUGUST 2004, a liquidator was appointed by the Health Ministry and the Justice Ministry, and an economist was appointed as general manager.
His main objective was to see that the hospital functioned as such, while seeking a financial solution.
A dramatic change occurred in August 2007, when the Jerusalem District Court approved the sale of the hospital to Gaydamak.
Zilbershlag, by then the chairman of the board, recalls, “I made it clear immediately that the first thing would be to cover all the debts and ensure the pensions of the employees. He didn’t hesitate, didn’t bargain and paid, and he is still paying according to his agreement until 2012.”
In fact, Gaydamak was personally responsible for an additional increase in the hospital’s deficit right after he acquired it, when he decided to approve the employees’ salary requests. “Out of his typical generous attitude, he decided to raise the salaries of the employees without consulting us first,” explains Zilbershlag. “As a result, the annual deficit rose to NIS 2 million per year, but he covered even that. From then on, we paid back all the pensions, the insurance for the doctors (who, for a while, worked without being insured as required by the law), and the hospital began to return to normal functioning, including the opening of new wards.
Today we can say that as far as maternity, children and premature babies are concerned, we offer among the best medical services in the city.”
In 2007 the lobby of the hospital was refurbished, and in 2008 a new maternity department and a cardiac intensive care unit were built. In 2009 the ultramodern neonatal ward was created.
Zilbershlag, who is looking for additional donors or investors, says he has no fear that the terrible situation that prevailed a few years ago will recur.
“Gaydamak is still in the picture, even from Russia, and I hear that his financial situation is improving. But we are looking in every direction to provide a strong financial backing for this important institution.”
The relationship between Zilbershlag and Gaydamak went through a few ups and downs. “It all went well until he decided to run for mayor of Jerusalem. He made it clear that he expected my public support. I told him that I would do so as long as there was no haredi candidate. He couldn’t understand that I would always support a candidate from my community, regardless of my personal opinion.”
Following the disastrous results of the elections for Gaydamak, says Zilbershlag, he lost all interest in the hospital, “though he did fulfill all his commitments.”
What disturbs Zilbershlag today is the image of Bikur Cholim as a haredi hospital that serves only the haredi and Arab populations.
“This is exactly what I am working to change,” he explains. “I am well aware that this is the current image, due mainly the fact that for years the maternity and children’s wards were our best – and I dare say perhaps the best among the city’s hospitals – and it is no secret that haredi and Arab women are the major clientele. But we are putting a lot of effort in other areas. The cardiology department, for instance, once the pride of this hospital, is where we put in a lot of effort, including hiring the best experts available.”
Today, Bikur Cholim has eight departments, including a modern emergency room, and employs 900 staff members (160 doctors, 450 nurses and other paramedic staff). It has a capacity of up to 200 beds, about 50 of them in the maternity ward. Zilbershlag says the board is working hard on developing it more and obtaining as many patients as possible “to bring Bikur Cholim back to its previous status in the city.”
Regarding this issue, some say that Bikur Cholim is using questionable methods. Two months ago, the medical community in the city was astir about Bikur Cholim’s attempt to hire five high-ranking doctors from Shaare Zedek. “Everything was ready, even the contracts for the defectors. But at the last moment four of them got cold feet, and the initiator of that bold move decided to back out and remained at Shaare Zedek,” recalls an official at Bikur Cholim. Zilbershlag deftly evaded the issue but admitted that his goal was to bring in “the best available” medical staff.
Another issue that has raised some hackles recently is the offer to “bribe” the Magen David Adom ambulance staff by offering them coffee and cake for each patient they bring to Bikur Cholim’s emergency room. “We don’t feel comfortable with this,” said one of the paramedics of Magen David Adom. “I think they should find more honorable ways to get more patients.”
However, Danny Rothenberg, spokesman for MDA Jerusalem, remarked that it is always easier for the ambulance staff to bring sick or injured people to a nearby hospital in the city center.
“Unless there is a clear indication that a patient needs some specific other hospital, we appreciate being able to take a patient to such an easily accessible facility.”