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The struggle over funding for Clalit health maintenance organization hospitals has pitted the health and acting finance ministers against one another, as they showed yesterday in a discordant display of loathing.

The Clalit union decided yesterday to implement a slowdown at all 14 of the hospitals that fall under the HMO's network, in a show of solidarity with Yoseftal Medical Center. The Eilat hospital says the Finance Ministry owes it NIS 18 million to finance regular activity.

The Clalit hospitals are operating on emergency mode. Non-urgent surgery is being postponed, the labs will conduct only those tests necessary to save lives, and the out-patient clinics have been closed.

Acting Finance Minister Ehud Olmert, who took up the portfolio after Benjamin Netanyahu quit the government, denied yesterday that he was holding back money owed to Yoseftal. He said the money had already been transferred to the Health Ministry. If Health Minister Dan Naveh had spent more of his time handling matters at his ministry, Olmert said, the crisis could have been resolved.

"Danny Naveh is the worst health minister the State of Israel has ever had," Olmert said.

In response, Naveh said there were no limits to the chutzpah and cynicism of Olmert, adding that the acting finance minister would be wise not to preach about how to handle a ministry.

Naveh did confirm that the Health Ministry had received the money for Yoseftal, but claimed the treasury was preventing it from being transferred to the hospital.

The head of the Clalit union, Prof. Yosef Ben-Hemo, said that if the money failed to arrive, Yoseftal might have to shut down entirely.

"It is a hospital serving 57,000 residents of Eilat and the surrounding towns," he said. "It also serves the army bases and the two million tourists and visitors who come to Eilat each year."

Ben-Hemo said the hospital's 300 employees were not striking for higher salaries or better conditions, but only to express their concern for the institution's ongoing situation. The closest hospital to Yoseftal is Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva, a three-hour drive away.