'Corrupt' Oncologist Given Community Service, but State Says Sentence Too Light

Senior oncologist Dr. Arie Figer was sentenced yesterday to six months of community service, after being convicted of exploiting patients, breach of trust and receiving bribes.

Tel Aviv District Court Judge Rachel Greenberg also fined Figer NIS 75,000, and ruled he would have to compensate his patients by a further NIS 20,000.

The judge said she would rule on the matter of moral turpitude in a separate hearing set for March 15.

Figer was convicted in December of taking payments of thousands of shekels from his patients, in exchange for preferential treatment during their stay at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv and Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva.

Figer asked some of the patients to pay him to be included in test groups, where they would get free samples of expensive new drugs, and directed others to get paid treatment in his private clinic in Bnei Brak.

"There's no need to explain the gravity of the offenses committed by the accused, and the corruption that came to characterize his conduct," Greenberg wrote in her verdict. "Earlier verdicts stress time and again the importance of serious punishment of public servants convicted of taking bribes. The acts of the accused, a senior medical specialists, are accompanied by a particularly ugly aspect of exploiting the distress of cancer patient and their families, for no other motive but pure greed."

"The accused cynically abused his senior position at the hospital by exploiting the weakness of the overloaded public healthcare system to grab money for himself," she wrote.

The justice also said that "reading time and again the accused statements, I found not a glimpse of understanding of comprehension of essence of the legal process led against him. The picture drawn by the conduct of the accused toward the patients and their families is one of arrogance, lack of empathy and exploitation."

Despite the stern rebukes in the verdict, the leniency of the actual sentence led Figer and his attorney, Nevot Telzur, to believe that Figer may well return to his practice.

"I think the court felt it should give me the chance to go back to my patients," said Figer after the sentencing. "This is my life's purpose. A person who chooses to be an oncologist, to work with cancer patients, chooses a way of life. I think the judge took that into account, despite everything else she said. Patients are all that I have in my life other than my family, and I dearly hope no process of any kind will bar me from helping them. It's highly unlikely a person who dedicated his life to oncology would do what they claim I've done. I say I'm innocent, that my conscience is pure and my hands are clean."

Telzur praised the verdict for "sending a clear message to the relevant authorities not to harm Dr. Figer's professional career," and said Figar may still appeal the decision.

"The judge went over and beyond herself," read the official statement from Figer's defense team. "She understood that Dr. Figer was punished enough in the three years of the legal process. She put the public interest first, with the public interest being that Dr. Figer, the number one digestive tract oncologist in Israel, will return as soon as possible to the hundreds of patients waiting for his devoted care."

The prosecutors were also going to appeal, they said yesterday, as they believe the sentencing was far too light.

"The sentencing is completely disproportionate to the gravity of the conviction," a source in the prosecution said.

The Justice Ministry said the prosecution was studying the verdict and considering whether to appeal.

Patients who attended the sentencing disagreed about the verdict. "Some people can't afford bribes, so they don't get treatment," said one patient, Naomi Skolnik. "The punishment he got isn't deterring enough, it's not a real punishment at all."

She was interrupted by another patient, who said that she was only alive because of Figer, and needed him to treat her and thousands of other patients.

The Health Ministry has yet to call a disciplinary committee to discuss Figer's sentencing, which means at the moment he remains licensed to practice medicine. Once a hearing is conducted, the committee will make recommendations to retired judge Vardi Zeiler, who had been empowered with the Health Minister's authority on disciplinary matters, and he will make the decision whether to suspend or cancel Figer's license.

Ichilov Hospital said in a statement that Figer has been on indeterminate leave, on his own initiative, since the beginning of the legal process.