Medical residents - David Bachar - 18112011
Medical residents demonstrating outside Rechovot’s Assaf Harofeh Medical center on Thursday. Photo by David Bachar
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The High Court of Justice told medical residents last night that they had 72 hours, until Sunday morning, at 10 A.M., to respond to the court's suggestion for arbitration between them and the Finance Ministry.

The decision came following the High Court hearings of three petitions calling for the cancelation of the collective wage agreement between the Israel Medical Association and the Finance Ministry.

High Court President Dorit Beinisch opened the hearing with sharp criticism of the residents' decision to resign. Justice Esther Hayut called the action "driving nails into the coffin of the public health system."

The High Court's proposal includes a time-frame of two weeks of intense discussions. Justices Beinisch, Hayut and Hanan Melcer also told the residents that an individual acceptable to both sides, a "responsible adult" in the words of Hayut, would be appointed, although the parties had asked that an arbiter not be appointed.

If the residents return to negotiations, the High Court said a hearing on the contempt of court charges filed by the State Prosecutor's Office would be postponed until 3 P.M. Sunday. The state would also be allowed to request an urgent hearing on the matter.

Israel Medical Association president Dr. Leonid Eidelman was in the first row at Thursday's High Court hearing. Behind him, the rows were filled with medical residents who had come from all over Israel to follow first-hand the discussions that will determine their future for years to come.

Itai Gat, a resident in gynecology, said: "This whole argument is to shorten the implementation of the agreement from nine years to three years." Even if the treasury would agree to shorten the implementation to six years, the residents would give up on the clauses still in dispute, like who will enforce the weekly day off."

In filing the contempt charges over the residents' refusal to return to work, the prosecution said the residents' struggle was "uncompromising and illegitimate and unbridled" and was an attempt by residents in central Israel "to improve their salary and work conditions after the signing of a collective wage agreement."

Thursday afternoon dozens of residents, joined by interns and medical students, protested at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, Assaf Harofeh Hospital at Tzrifin, and Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva.

At Assaf Harofeh, where about 100 protesters, including interns, gathered outside the hospital after word spread that the hospital would fire any interns who struck, the hospital denied that such threats had been made. "The hospital director made clear to them [the interns] that interns cannot be fired."

Some 30 interns and medical students carrying protest signs staged a procession through the emergency room and various departments of Rambam Medical Center in Haifa.

The residents are planning a major demonstration on Sunday morning in Tel Aviv.

Meanwhile, according to figures provided by the residents, more than 400 residents have now stopped coming to work at Rambam, Meir Hospital in Kfar Sava, Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, Shneider Children's Medical Center in Petah Tikva, Bnei Zion Medical Center in Haifa and Wolfson Medical Center, Holon.

Some 300 senior doctors and department heads have also reportedly handed in their resignations at Ichilov, Sheba, Shneider, Rambam and Meir.

At Shneider alone, 72 specialists handed in their resignations, including 18 heads of units and departments.

Hospitals around the country reported slow-downs in patient intake in emergency rooms and out-patient clinics, and at Meir Hospital the orthopedic and gynecology clinics closed, due to the absence of residents. However, the Health Ministry claimed no damage was being done to patients and instructed hospitals not to compromise any patient services.

"Senior doctors are being given shifts to replace the residents and hospitals cannot hold out for long in this arrangement," Prof. Yehuda Ullmann, a senior member of the Rambam doctors' committee and the head of the hospital's plastic surgery department, said.

Hospital directors yesterday sent letters to residents warning them that they are considered to have "abandoned patients" and asking them to return to work immediately, given that their decision to resign has been deemed illegal.

Meanwhile, for the past two days the heads of the health-care system have been at the annual conference at the Dead Sea, organized by the National Institute for the Study of Health-Care Services and Health Policy. The theme of this year's conference is aging. Among the senior officials in attendence are deputy health minister Yaakov Litzman, health ministry director general Roni Gamzu, the heads of the four health maintenance organizations, directors of major hospitals, and Prof. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, head of the institute that organized the conference.