Medical Residents: We Would Rather Go to Jail Than Be Forced Back to Work

Nearly 500 doctors quitting or saying they planned to quit, among them senior physicians and department heads.

The number of medical specialists and residents resigning from public hospitals further increased yesterday, with a total of nearly 500 doctors quitting or saying they planned to quit, among them senior physicians and department heads.

According to Health Ministry data, 168 specialists have submitted resignations, while 315 residents who had resigned earlier stopped showing up for work, although reports from the field indicated that as many as 400 residents were absent from the beginning of the week.

Medical resident reps at supreme courts - Emil Salman - October 26 2011
Emil Salman

The High Court of Justice is scheduled to hold a hearing today on the residents' demand that they be allowed to resign. The National Labor Court has twice declared the residents' mass resignations to be an illegal strike, but residents have insisted they would pursue their efforts to improve their work conditions "even if they put everyone in jail."

Both the Health Ministry and the Israel Medical Association have informed the residents that they could be subject to disciplinary and even criminal proceedings since their resignation is in contempt of court.

The residents object to the terms of the collective agreement signed on their behalf in August by the IMA. The agreement calls for several phased-in wage increases, including sharp increases for doctors working in peripheral areas and those in specialties with shortages. But the residents say the agreement's nine-year time frame is far too long.

The hospitals affected by the resignations to date are Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, Schneider Children's Medical Center of Israel, Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Meir Hospital in Kfar Sava and Bnei Zion Medical Center in Haifa.

While there have been no serious disruptions in hospital operations, officials say that the current situation, which involves specialists doing rotations instead of the residents who resigned, cannot be sustained over the long term.

Residents say the Health Ministry is making an effort to conceal any effect that the resignations might be having on the health system. Although the ministry has ordered hospital administrations not to cut services to patients, hospitals with serious staff shortages closed their outpatient clinics yesterday.

Some 60 Tel Aviv University students joined the protest yesterday, boycotting classes for a day and demonstrating at Ichilov Hospital in support of the residents. In the gynecology department of Petah Tikva's Beilinson Hospital, several residents convened a meeting to discuss developments. Among them were leaders of the residents' struggle.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman yesterday again called on residents to return to work until the High Court of Justice can rule on the residents' petitions, but at the same time hinted he might be willing to support a decision to shorten the wage agreement. Litzman said he would not object to reopening the agreement if the High Court ordered it reopened.

Meanwhile, several senior health system officials approached Prof. Mordechai Shani - a previous Health Ministry director-general, director of Sheba Hospital and Israel Prize winner - and asked him if he would serve as an arbitrator between the residents and the treasury.

In response to developments, MK Aryeh Eldad (National Union ) submitted a bill that would require arbitration in public sector labor disputes.

"The ongoing crisis in the medical system, despite the agreements that were reached, sharpens the need for compulsory arbitration in every instance of labor disputes in the public sector," Eldad said.

Health Ministry director-general Dr. Ronni Gamzu also called for an outside mediator to help break the deadlock between the doctors and the treasury.

"The poor treatment of problems [in the health system] in recent years has left the medical staff frustrated and in distress. Only a third party can remedy this situation," he said during a health policy conference at the Dead Sea yesterday.

IMA chairman Dr. Leonid Eidelman addressed the same conference, saying that most of the residents resigning were doing so because they were afraid of having to clock in, thinking it would harm their earnings.

Eidelman also criticized public relations agencies for getting involved in the residents' struggle.

"There are those who claim the length of the agreement should be three years, rather than nine years, but all these people want to do is destroy the health system," Eidelman said. "If there's an agreement for three years, but at the end of three years there will be the same problems that there are today, everyone will be back on the streets threatening to resign."

Clalit Health Services CEO Eli Defes said he believed that the IMA had signed an excellent agreement, but that it has not been explained properly. As for the resignations, he said, "We ought to put things in proportion. Those who resigned are 300 out of the country's 5,000 residents."