Ichilov Hospital - Nir Kafri
Ichilov Hospital. The country lacks hospital beds. Photo by Nir Kafri
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The cabinet yesterday unanimously approved a NIS 500 million plan to strengthen the public health system. The declared goal of the plan is to reduce hospital overcrowding, expand health services and improve community-based preventive care while giving priority to hospitals in outlying areas. It was proposed by Deputy Health Ministry Yaakov Litzman.

The program will create an additional 960 hospital beds over the next six years and the medical staff positions to handle the additional patient load. In the past decade, the number of hospital beds has remained static, as Israel's population has climbed. At just 1.93 beds per 1,000 residents, hospital capacity in Israel is among the lowest in the developed world. In addition to the 960 beds in existing facilities, the hospital under construction in Ashkelon will add an additional 300 beds. The plan also provides for 100 more beds in psychiatric hospitals.

The plan includes an additional 160 job slots for physicians at government hospitals in the next two years, with preference for hospitals in the periphery.

A program is to be drawn up to encourage physicians to pursue underserved specialties, to funding additional positions for physicians in the periphery and to "consider ways of employing doctors beyond regular working hours in order to increase the level of service at hospitals," according to the press release issued by the Prime Minister's Office - all in order to improve the level of medical care and to shorten waiting times.

The plan also provides for increasing the number of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI ) machines, from 10 to 21, and the acquisition of eight linear accelerators, used in radiation treatment for cancer.

A new in-vitro fertilization unit will be built at the Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya, while access to immunizations for children in Bedouin communities in the Negev is to be expanded.

At yesterday's cabinet meeting Litzman said he would seek cabinet approval for reducing patient co-payments for drugs. Despite Finance Ministry opposition because it would raise health care fees, Litzman said he would also seek to include custodial nursing care in the basket of health services provided to all Israelis.

In response yesterday, the Israel Medical Association said: "We welcome the declarations of the prime minister and health minister over the importance of society caring for the sick," but added: "Unfortunately, it's a case of decisions that have been proposed in the past and, with regard to the addition of beds, it's a tiny addition compared to the need that the Health Ministry has presented in its reports in the past."