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No new hospital beds will be will be added in state-funded hospitals until 2010, following an agreement Monday between Finance Minister Roni Bar-On and Health Minister Yacov Ben Yizri.

The decision was described as a "catastrophe" and "outrageous" by senior officials at the Health Ministry, who said that this would cause severe harm to patients and particularly to those requiring treatment in intensive care units.

A plan prepared two years ago by a team of senior officials at the Health Ministry calculated that the growth of the elderly population would require 3,000 new hospital beds over the next decade.

The proposal's strategy was that by 2015, 3,000 new beds would be added to existing hospitals, and to three new hospitals: in Ashdod, the Sharon region and the area north of Haifa.

Four senior Health Ministry officials told Haaretz yesterday that Monday's agreement means that by 2015 there will be no new beds added to any of the hospitals. They explained that even if a decision is made in 2010 to add beds to existing hospitals, the period between the planning phase and the implementation is usually about five years.

The departments that are currently in dire need of additional beds - which also means additional staff - are intensive care, wards for treating children born prematurely, and internal medicine wards.

The ministry officials said the treatment and health services that hospitals are capable of offering will be severely undermined, and warned that hundreds of patients are liable to die because of a lack of space in intensive care and internal medicine wards.

Moreover, the danger of infections and the spread of dangerous diseases will rise because of the lack of available space in hospitals, and the inability to isolate many of the patients who are suffering from communicable ailments.

According to the latest Health Ministry data on rates of hospitalization, the overflowing of certain hospitals is no longer a seasonal matter - usually the winter when the flu strikes large numbers of people - but occurs also in the summer, forcing staff to set up beds in the corridors.

As of Wednesday, the data showed that in 11 hospitals the rate of hospitalization in the internal medicine wards was more than 100 percent. In addition, 200 patients who are being ventilated - assisted in breathing by artificial means - are not being kept in intensive care but in other wards, where they are not receiving the best possible treatment.

Of these 200 patients, 38 are in Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, 31 in Wolfson Hospital in Holon, 21 in Assaf HaRofeh in Tzrifin, and 20 in Soroka Hospital in Be'er Sheva.

The health minister accepted the demand posed by the treasury not to increase the number of beds in hospitals, even though the ministry's own data shows a continued declining trend in the ratio between the size of the population and the number of available beds. The ratio of beds to population in Israel is among the lowest in the West.

Bed occupancy in hospital wards is very high and stands, on average, at 96 percent, while in internal medicine wards it averages 105 percent, both among the highest figures in the West. The direct result is the early release of patients from hospitals, and the phenomenon of placing beds in corridors, mess halls and recovery wards.

A senior Health Ministry official told Haaretz yesterday of two recent incidents that epitomize the lack of available bed space. In one case, a 40-year-old resident of Netanya suffering from serious burns was taken to Laniado Hospital, but the management there thought that it would be more appropriate for her to be treated at a burns treatment ward, or at an intensive care unit of a large hospital.

However for 48 hours it was impossible to find a place for her in any of the large hospitals, including Hadassah, Sheba, Ichilov, Rambam, Beilinson and Assaf Harofeh. She was evacuated by helicopter to Soroka Hospital in Be'er Sheva, where she was treated at the intensive care unit. She died a week later.

In another case, a pregnant woman who was expected to deliver a premature baby could not find a hospital in Jerusalem or the center of the country, where she and her newborn could be treated. In the end, she was hospitalized at Carmel Hospital in Haifa.

The shortage of space becomes an issue for the general public every winter, and every February the Knesset Labor and Welfare Committee meets to discuss the problems of rooms in intensive care units.

The head of the Israel Medical Association, Dr. Yoram Belcher, told the committee that the shortage in space leads to "systematic violation of the law on the rights of the patients," and that "undoubtedly this [situation] leads to loss of life."

"The state needs to look its citizens in the eye and say: either we take care of you, or we have decided to give up on you," says Dr. Eran Segal, head of intensive care at Sheba hospital. "Do not send us, the doctors, to tell the patients; you are 70 now, and you have pneumonia, and that makes you a little old for us."

However, Segal also says: "Let me let you in on a secret: when a relative of an MK comes in, we will find a solution, nearly every time. When a relative of a doctor comes in too, we will make the effort and find a solution."