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New immigrants will now find it significantly easier to obtain legal residency for their elderly parents, under new rules announced by Interior Minister Roni Bar-On Wednesday. The most important implication of the changes is that the waiting period before elderly parents can obtain health insurance has been slashed in half.

Immigrant organizations welcomed the new rules, saying that they will constitute a big improvement if they are actually applied. Bar-On promised that the ministry would begin applying the new procedures nationwide next week.

The residency problem stems from the fact that while the non-Jewish spouses of people eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return receive automatic citizenship, that right is not extended to their parents. During the massive wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, many non-Jews moved here under this provision, and many brought their elderly parents as well, so as not to leave them alone. However, the Interior Ministry often refused to grant these parents legal status. According to data given to the Knesset by the ministry two years ago, some 5,000 elderly parents of immigrants were then living in Israel without legal status, and therefore without health insurance as well.

Until 2002, elderly parents who did obtain legal status were made temporary residents, which entitled them to join the national health insurance program and receive National Insurance Institute allowances. But in 2002, the ministry decided instead to give them the status of foreign workers - even though, being elderly, they were generally unable to work. This meant that they were not entitled to join the national health insurance plan, and, being elderly, they were also often rejected by private insurers. As a result, there have been several cases of elderly people who died because they could not afford medical care.

In 2005, the rules were changed again, such that parents of immigrants were entitled to residency, and therefore health insurance, if they were over age 60, but only after a waiting period that lasted four years for people aged 60 to 70 and two years for people over 70. During this waiting period, they continued to be treated as foreign workers, meaning that they were still without health insurance for lengthy periods.

On Wednesday, however, Bar-On announced that the waiting period would be cut in half, to two years for people aged 60 to 70 and one year for people over 70. However, there is still a catch: The ministry grants residency rights to elderly parents of immigrants only if they have no children living outside of Israel.

The new rules also allow relatives of immigrants to obtain one-year tourist visas, whereas the maximum length used to be six months.

Since assuming his job, Bar-On has adopted a consistent policy of trying to ease procedures for new immigrants and their relatives. In one such move, he recently ordered a review of the procedures for granting legal status to the children of non-Jewish immigrants, with the goal of making this process easier as well.