Municipalities Eyeing Mental Health Facilities for Real Estate Development

Health Ministry vows to upgrade psychiatric hospitals following Haaretz report

Health Ministry Director General Roni Gamzu will look into obstacles being put in the way of psychiatric facilities following a report in Friday's Hebrew edition of Haaretz. The report revealed that local authorities are blocking renovations of such facilities.

Gamzu told Haaretz he will consider asking Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein for an order directing local authorities to permit the new hospital construction and the upgrading of psychiatric facilities.

The Mazra Psychiatric Hospital in Acre.
Moran Maayan

"A local authority cannot prevent new construction at a medical institution without providing specific reasons," Gamzu said. Over the weekend, he ordered all funding for infrastructure development, including funds that would otherwise be available for general service government hospitals, to be used to upgrade psychiatric hospitals.

Friday's Haaretz report described the pressures from local authorities and developers on psychiatric hospitals to leave urban areas so residential neighborhoods can be built that would generate additional property taxes. Many of the hospitals were built on the periphery of urban areas, but rapid residential growth has changed where they stand.

Among the examples cited in the report was the refusal of the Acre Municipality to approve construction of new buildings at the Mazra Psychiatric Hospital, where two departments now house 10 patients per room. In June of 2000, the Israel Lands Administration, with the encouragement of the Acre Municipality, changed the zoning of the hospital site to "residential, tourism, hotels and commerce."

A low-rise residential area had already been built adjacent to the hospital, and the municipality also declared its intention to raze the hospital and create a new neighborhood of low and high-rise buildings there. The Health Ministry examined the possibility of relocating the Mazra facility to a site adjacent to the Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya, but the Nahariya municipality objected. In recent months, Acre's proposal to move Mazra to the eastern part of the city near railroad tracks was considered, but the Health Ministry said this was not conducive for a hospital.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman met in March with Acre Mayor Shimon Lankry regarding the future of the hospital, but no agreement was reached.

The Acre Municipality said in response: "The Mazra hospital is situated on a site designated for residential and hotel use and in practice is blocking the city's access to the beach and preventing development of large tracts around it." The city noted discussions regarding relocating the hospital and the city's offer of another site in Acre. It said the hospital had submitted expansion plans that would only perpetuate the hospital's presence on the site. "In such a circumstance," it said, "the Acre Municipality cannot approve the request as it is not legal, as the land is zoned for residential and tourist use."

The Nahariya Municipality said it objected to the hospital's relocation to Nahariya so a new residential neighborhood can be built in Acre when a new neighborhood is also planned for the site where the hospital seeks to build in Nahariya. "In our opinion," the Nahariya Municipality statement said, "the location of an institution of this nature should be outside the city, and the Health Ministry has many institutions like this outside of the major cities."

In Be'er Yaakov, south of Tel Aviv, municipal officials are also seeking the relocation of the Be'er Yaakov-Nes Tziona Mental Health Center in the community from a site where real estate construction has been undertaken. A plan to move the hospital to a plot adjacent to the Assaf Harofeh Hospital at Tzrifin didn't come about for budgetary reasons and because the ministry decided not to seek the approval of local authorities out of concern the request would be rejected. The local authority in Be'er Yaakov said although the relocation of the psychiatric facility is being sought, the local government would not block the construction of new medical facilities on the site.

The ministry's annual budget for planning and building medical institutions is NIS 140 million. In debates on the state budget, agreement has been reached on an additional allocation of NIS 100 million for the next two years, which Gamzu said will also be allocated to psychiatric hospitals. He said further improvement will have to await implementation of a reform plan for psychiatric care, which involves transfer of the responsibility for such care to the health maintenance organizations.

The Jerusalem Municipality has significantly delayed new construction at the Eitanim Psychiatric Hospital, part of the Jerusalem Mental Health Center, due to opposition from residents of the adjacent Har Nof neighborhood. Construction finally began in February, but it is to last four years and in the interim, the facility is reportedly overcrowded, with patients housed in the emergency room and with younger patients in the geriatric unit. The center's director, Leon Greenhaus, sent the Health Ministry pictures of overcrowding at Eitanim, including photos of patients sleeping on mattresses in the halls.

The Jerusalem Municipality is in a dispute with the Herzog Psychiatric and Geriatric Hospital over a debt the city claims the hospital owes for the paving of a road near the facility in 1988. As a result, the city is holding up construction of a new wing, the funds for which have been raised from donors.