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Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman yesterday announced the withdrawal of the government tender for providing health services in public schools. He said one of the three bids submitted was too high, while the third was so low as to make the ministry question the bidder's ability to provide satisfactory service.

The decision was announced at a session of the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee. The privatization of school health services, which are responsible for immunizing students and carrying out basic physical examinations, has been widely criticized.

The nurses' union said in response that it would close down the service unless the privatization is reversed completely.

Natali Seculife Advanced Medical and Emergency Services has provided school health services for the past two years. In September, after a petition was filed in the High Court of Justice, the Health Ministry decided to issue a new tender. The ministry also announced that the state would assume responsibility for the service in southern Israel starting in January 2012.

Apart from Natali, two other providers submitted bids: a nonprofit organization, the Association for Public Health, which was responsible for the service in 2007; and Bikur Rofeh Health Clinics.

Earlier this month the ministry notified the High Court that it was delaying its decision; yesterdat Litzman surprised the Knesset committee handling the issue by announcing the cancellation of the tender.

The Association for Public Health submitted a bid that was significantly lower than the ministry's cost estimate. After a hearing, the ministry decided to reject the offer because of "fears that the services would be defective." The two other bids were significantly higher than the ministry's estimate.

The Health Ministry has not said whether it intends to issue a new tender. It has hired 87 nurses to provide the services in schools south of Ashkelon.

"A discussion dealing with the long-term regulation of the services will be undertaken with the participation of the health, justice and finance ministries and taking into account the High Court's decisions on the matter," the ministry said in a statement.

Natali will presumably continue to provide services through the current school year.

According to figures cited by the nurses union, students at 1,500 of 4,000 schools are still waiting to receive check-ups and vaccinations - four months into the school year.

Nurses union chairwoman Ilana Cohen yesterday said Liztman's decision was "clear proof of the problematic nature of supplying preventive medical services through contractors. The result of the privatization is inferior services that cost the state more. The only ones who profit are the contractors," Cohen said. The Nurses Union, which has already announced a labor dispute over the issue, said it would declare a strike if a new tender was published. The union recently held a meeting attended by 190 nurses at Natali who are union members and who said they were willing to join the strike in ordeer to end the privatization.

The Israel Medical Association published a position paper in November calling for the state to resume responsibility for health services in the schools. According to the paper, Natali received NIS 63 million for the contract, for which it employed 300 part-time nurses and eight physicians, so that "tens of millions of shekels in public funds went into private hands." Natali was also criticized for failing to complete the immunization programs in some schools during the school year last year; it vaccinated those students during the summer vacation.

Natali said in a response that the company has substantially improved its performance since last year, and the services are now fully computerized. In the past five months Natali has provided high-quality services, the company said.