IMA Deal Pushes Doctors to Set Up Alternative Union

Israel Medical Association currently represents 95 percent of Israel's doctors, but dozens of physicians from four major hospitals joined alternative union on Monday.

Israel Medical Association chairman Dr. Leonid Eidelman said yesterday that he has no intention of resigning in response to doctors' discontent over the collective agreement he signed with the Finance Ministry last month.

"I don't intend to resign," said Eidelman, speaking to Haaretz yesterday. "In the future, there will be elections in the IMA and the doctors can decide who represents them."

Dozens of physicians from four hospitals - Ichilov in Tel Aviv, Meir in Kfar Sava, Rambam in Haifa and Abarbanel in Bat Yam - joined an alternative doctors' union yesterday, posing a growing challenge to the IMA, which currently represents about 95 percent of Israel's doctors. So far, the doctors have joined the new union without leaving the IMA, but the move is seen as a step toward quitting the veteran organization.

The physicians' committee at Wolfson Hospital in Holon is expected to approve a similar move today. This evening, meanwhile, senior doctors from around the country will convene at Ichilov to discuss further measures against the IMA.

Physicians' committees at several other hospitals are also considering leaving the IMA for the new union - a move whose legality is likely to be challenged in the labor courts - with the ultimate goal being to get the new group recognized as the physicians' official representative in place of the IMA. By law, at least half of the IMA's 20,000-plus members would have to switch unions for this to happen.

As an alternative, therefore, the doctors are considering trying to replace the IMA leadership from within when Eidelman's term ends in 2013.

Eidelman noted that, following the last doctors' strike in 2000, discontented doctors also talked about setting up a new union then, but nothing came of it. "In my assessment, this isn't a good idea," he said. "It's an initiative that won't strengthen the community of doctors and won't enable the doctors to advance the interests of medicine."

Dissenting doctors have also hired a law firm to prepare a suit demanding the cancelation of the agreement; it will be filed in a labor court in the coming days. "There's a window of time until the agreement is legally registered, during which we can try to stop it by legal means," explained Dr. Zvi Klein, who chairs Meir Hospital's physicians' committee.

Asher Sela, one of the lawyers drafting the suit, acknowledged that "it's a difficult legal situation," but that "someone has to provide an answer to the distress that has arisen in the field since the agreement was signed."

Signing a collective labor agreement is supposed to bring peace, Sela said, "but here, we have the opposite situation: Unrest has grown after the agreement, and in practice, industrial peace has not been created. That means someone acted improperly, and our contention is that the IMA should have acted with more transparency throughout this time."

Effectively, Sela said, the IMA violated its legal obligation to fairly represent its members.

Eidelman slammed this initiative: "I'm convinced we represented the doctors in the negotiations in the best way possible, and this suit seems very strange to me," he said.

In a letter sent to Eidelman on Sunday, the physicians' committees of Ichilov, Meir, Rambam and Abarbanel hospitals demanded that he publicly announce the agreement's cancelation within 48 hours and reopen negotiations with the treasury. The letter claimed Eidelman had promised all the physicians' committees would be given the draft agreement to review before it was signed, but this didn't happen. Instead, "the IMA decided not to publish the agreement," the letter alleged.

The IMA responded that it has no intention of meeting the letter's demands and termed its accusations "baseless." Eidelman insisted the negotiations had been fully transparent until they reached the labor court, but the court then barred the IMA from disclosing the talks' details. "During the mediation process, by its nature, we were also forbidden to discuss the details," he said.

The deal was later approved by the IMA's 18-member secretariat by a vote of 17-0, with one abstention, Eidelman noted. The IMA may consider submitting future agreements to a vote by the full membership, but this time, "we weren't technologically prepared for it."

As for the dissension, he said, that's natural in a heterogeneous group with widely varying interests, especially since the agreement gave priority to doctors in the periphery and in understaffed specialties. But he predicted the opposition would recede as doctors "begin to feel the deal's fruits." Indeed, six directors of hospitals in the periphery sent the IMA a letter supporting the deal yesterday.

Meanwhile, residents at several hospitals began resubmitting their letters of resignation, after the National Labor Court ruled on Sunday that their original resignations constituted illegal collective action. The residents are also still considering appealing this ruling to the High Court of Justice.

As of yesterday, at least 256 residents had resubmitted their resignations, all from hospitals in the center of the country. The largest number of resignations, 105, were submitted at Ichilov Hospital.