Putting Politics Above Healing

Opinion

By Nancy Falchuk

Published March 11, 2009, issue of March 20, 2009.
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I was heartbroken to learn of the recent decision by the Palestinian Authority to cease allowing Palestinians to be treated at Israeli hospitals, including Hadassah’s two hospitals in Jerusalem.

From the day we began bringing Western medical care to the Middle East in 1913 until today, Hadassah’s policy has been to provide medical care for all, regardless of nationality, politics or religion. This principle is fundamental to our practice of medicine and to the doctors and nurses who have served in every hospital in the country.

This has not always been easy. Attacks on the very facilities that provide medical care were frequent in the early years. The nadir was on April 13, 1948, when 78 doctors, nurses and patients on their way to our hospital were ambushed and murdered. Still, on that day, and every day since, no sick person arriving at the gates of our hospitals has been denied care.

A diverse staff of the best doctors and nurses — Jewish and Arab, Israeli and Palestinian — provides advanced medical care for these patients. Even on the darkest days in the Middle East, the island of peace and sanity of Israeli hospitals has been a source of hope to both peoples. And so it should remain.

Each year we treat well over 100,000 Palestinian patients — both in hospital and at our outpatient clinics — and perform 500,000 lab tests for this patient population. The decision to deprive Palestinian patients of the advantages of life-saving medicine violates the understanding that has always stood apart from the conflict. By refusing to pay for their treatment, the Palestinian Authority is forcing patients to stop care midcourse and to forego the sophisticated treatment that Israeli hospitals offer. For some, afflicted with serious diseases, this will be a death sentence.

We are already seeing the dramatic consequences of the P.A.’s decision. Last year our hospitals received an average of 1,600 referrals of Palestinian patients each month. Last month there were only 10 such referrals.

Of course, I understand the strain of paying for ongoing health care. Israeli hospitals charge the same rate for Palestinian patients as they charge Israel’s national health insurance carriers for treating Israelis citizens — a much lower rate than what residents of other countries would be charged. And treatments for Palestinians often are subsidized by Israeli and foreign donors. Still, sophisticated medical care remains expensive.

It would indeed be less costly for Palestinians to treat Palestinian patients in Palestinian hospitals. That’s one reason that we collaborate with multiple Palestinian hospitals and physicians in radiology, ophthalmology, pediatric heart defects, oncology and hematology, emergency medicine, community medicine, neonatology and more. When I’m at Hadassah Hospital, I frequently find doctors and nurses on the phone with colleagues in the West Bank and Gaza discussing their mutual concern: patients who need their help. But preparing staff to perform the most complex medical procedures, exactly those for which Palestinians today seek help in Israel, takes years to accomplish.

This is not a debate about subsidies or the charge for medical treatment. It is about the principle that access to health care should always remain above politics and beyond borders.

Nancy Falchuk is national president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.


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