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Illustration: A hospital hall. Photo by Nir Keidar
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The High Court of Justice Wednesday permitted a hospital being built in Ashdod to provide private medical services, despite protests by civil rights and social justice organizations.

The court denied a petition submitted in March by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights and the Adva Center against permission given Assuta Medical Centers to operate private medical services in the hospital it is building in Ashdod. Supreme Court President Asher Grunis even fined the petitioners NIS 45,000.

"The right to equal access to health services is peripheral and not at the center of the constitutional right," Supreme Court President Asher Grunis wrote in his ruling, which permits the hospital to provide private medical services equal to 25 percent of its overall activity.

In 2002 the Knesset passed a law to set up a hospital in Ashdod. Assuta, a private hospital which won the public tender, was permitted to provide private medical services, meaning patients would be able to pay to select their physician.

The petitioners argued that operating private medical services would lead to inequality in the provision of services and infringe on the constitutional rights of patients who cannot afford them.

Private treatment would generate feelings of discrimination and humiliation among patients who cannot afford it, offending their dignity, petitioners said. They added that it would place doctors in a conflict of interest regarding their patients.

Grunis said the petition was submitted at a "significant" delay, years after many bodies, including Assuta, had invested a great deal of money and effort in the hospital project.

In an unusual step, Grunis charged the petitioners NIS 45,000 for court expenses. He said they did not prove that private medical services could infringe on the rule of law. He also said they did not show "that private medical services to the extent of 25 percent, and under the restrictions [imposed in the new hospital's regulations], would in fact infringe on the right to health services of those who cannot afford the price of choosing their own doctor."

These regulations say a doctor offering private medical services may do so only during days and hours when he is not employed in his regular job at the hospital, Grunis noted. The regulations also say private treatment is not permitted in the emergency room and private patients will not be given any priority in scheduling treatments, examinations or surgery.

The petitioners said offering private treatment in a public hospital "means giving it permission to discriminate between patients who pay and all the others, in an institution intended to serve the entire public. The High Court ruling is troubling due to its immediate significance for the medical services in the Ashdod hospital, but could have more problematic repercussions," a spokesman for the petitioners said.

He took issue with the court's giving such importance to the delay in submitting the petition. "We think this argument is erroneous but in any case, in view of the issue's public importance and implications, the court should have addressed the essential, material arguments we raised," the spokesman said.

He said the High Court does not usually impose court expenses on public petitioners and Grunis' doing so, and for such a large sum, could deter social justice groups from petitioning the High Court in the future.