Dissension Among Hadassah Women Over Accountability for Crisis

Major donor: 'I don’t like it when they blame management in Israel’

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NEW YORK – Hadassah-Women’s Zionist Organization of America leaders are not taking sufficient responsibility for the financial crisis that recently paralyzed its Jerusalem medical center, say some of some of the group’s members.

The crisis has abated, for the moment, as hospital leaders negotiate with the Israeli government and union chiefs to arrive at a long-term bailout plan. But for some of the 330,000 members of the venerable women’s organization, that is not enough.

Leaders of the women’s organization “are blaming everyone else,” said a major donor and former national board member shortly after being briefed by a current senior leader. “They have to take responsibility,” she said, insisting on anonymity. “I don’t like when I hear them say ‘it’s management’s fault in Israel.’ That to me is very disturbing.”

The cause of the crisis is not mismanagement on the part of Hadassah-WZOA, said the head of its Jerusalem office, Audrey Shimron. It is “a combination of changing realities on the ground that became exacerbated,” she told Haaretz. “I don’t think you can point a finger at a single person or factor.”

1.3 billion shekel deficit

Hadassah Medical Center, the formal name for the enterprise that covers hospitals in two Jerusalem locations, Ein Karem and Mt. Scopus, with a total of almost 1,200 beds, has an accumulated deficit of some 1.3 billion shekels, or roughly $371 million, amassed over the past three years, Shimron said. In addition, she said, it has an operations budget deficit of about $100 million a year. Both types of deficit are rooted in agreements struck three years ago with Israeli health funds, in which Hadassah hospitals agreed to accept deeply discounted payments, said Shimron.

Moreover, she said, every hospital in Israel has major operations deficits. But other medical centers “receive balancing grants from the government at the end of every year. Hadassah does not get those while at the same time” operating according to government rules for public hospitals. So “we are hemmed in by all these government restrictions but we don’t receive that balancing grant.”
The fiscal crisis is not unique to Hadassah, she said. “The general health system in Israel is in a precarious situation, but it isn’t necessarily felt by the public because the government takes care of it. The festering wound of the entire system has had a spotlight put on it by the Hadassah crisis,” Shimron said in an interview. “We are not that out of the ordinary.”

The hospital, which receives roughly a million patient visits each year, was nearly paralyzed when doctors, nurses and other staff went on strike recently after receiving only half their January wages. At the moment, staffers are back at work as negotiations proceed, with an April 13 deadline.

Most Hadassah members in the United States contacted by Haaretz were unaware of the current problems and said they have received no communication from its headquarters about it. The national office, in New York, has been posting updates about the crisis in Jerusalem to its website. They belong to local chapters with names like “Aliyah,” “Kinneret,” “Sabra” and “Mt. Scopus.”

Interviews with members made it clear that many, if not most, are inactive or close to it. With a donation of just $212, becoming a Hadassah lifetime member doesn’t cost much.

‘Members getting older, sicker’

“Members, like members of my group, have been getting older and older, sicker and sicker,” said Lisa Kraft, who is a leader of her Hadassah chapter in Silver Spring, Md. “So many people are paper members and get the magazine, but it’s not an ongoing commitment.”

Naomi Moskowitz of Chicago said, “I don’t know anything about it. I’m totally not even involved. I honestly don’t know anyone who is an active member.”
Phyllis Levy, who lives in Seattle, had no idea what a reporter on the phone was talking about. “I am not aware of any of this. I am not very active in Hadassah,” she said. Her Hadassah chapter is on hiatus because the people who ran things “got tired of it and new people did not step up.”

She hasn’t gotten any recent communications from Hadassah, locally or from the national office. But she has hardly noticed. “I am a lifetime member because my mother was, and I felt it was more a contribution than a personal commitment.”
While in Jerusalem several years ago, Levy visited Hadassah hospital. “All you see is plaque after plaque after plaque of donors” lining the walls, she said. “You get the impact of how much people in the U.S. support that hospital. It serves such a need. To think it’s in danger because it’s been fiscally mismanaged is terrible.”

Sandy Tankoos, a former New Yorker who moved to Boca Raton, Florida a few years ago, said members of the organization are very loyal and committed to the hospital even if they aren’t active. They “think of Hadassah and they think of Israel and they think of the hospital. It’s almost one item to them.”

“Almost everybody that I meet down here belongs to Hadassah. Truthfully most of them would not even be aware of what’s been happening. This has not rippled through the organization. Once they become aware they’ll be very disappointed to find out how much debt Hadassah has.”

Shimron recently told TheMarker that the hospital has viewed Hadassah-WZOA as “a cow to be milked.” The major Hadassah donor and former national board member said that comment was particularly offensive “on many levels, not the least of which is that Hadassah is a women’s organization. I was appalled and disgusted.”

In an interview Thursday, Shimron said, “Mistakes were made by hospital management, by the board, by Hadassah-WZOA, by the government. It is a combination of factors that came to a head. Everyone was acting out of very strong goodwill to have a wonderful hospital.”

J’lem leader: Dual campuses, salaries a burden

Shimron attributed part of the hospital’s financial problems to the fact that it runs two separate campuses, which “is a burden in terms of overhead costs.” Hadassah is also equipped to take more complex cases than are some other hospitals, she said. And it has what she called “the burden of academic salaries” for those who teach at the medical, nursing, dental and public health schools Hadassah runs in partnership with Hebrew University.

Hadassah-WZOA has given the Hadassah Medical Center close to $1 billion over the past decade, said Shimron. That includes $19 million in operating funds each year, but most of the funds go toward research, equipment and building infrastructure like the Davidson Tower, a signature project that has exceeded its initial budget by more than $100 million and remains $50 million short of completion.

Negotiations between Hadassah hospital, the government and unions are underway “around the clock,” Shimron said. Hadassah-WZOA has already agreed to several steps to bolster the hospital’s finances, among them giving Hadassah Medical Center a $25 million “very long-term” loan interest-free, Shimron said, and forgiving a $10 million loan from 2012.

“I feel anguish though for the people who have supported Hadassah all these years, and the people who work there and depend on the hospital,” said the former national board member. “They did not deserve this.”

A worker holding up a sign during a protest at the hospital, reading, 'Hadassah needs intensive care.'Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Hadassah hospital employees striking on Feb. 16, 2014.Credit: Emil Salman

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