Israel’s Suspension of Medical Coverage for Ukrainian Refugees Hurts the Most Vulnerable

10.08.23, Liza Rozovsky and Bar Peleg, Haaretz


The suspension of medical coverage for 14,000 Ukrainian refugees in Israel is expected to hurt the most seriously ill among them, whose treatment costs are particularly high.

The Finance Ministry decided on Wednesday to withhold the transfer of the needed funds due to a lack of budget, despite a commitment from the Prime Minister’s Office and the extension of the activities of the “Time Order” administration, which helps refugees from Ukraine.

While no official order was issued by the Health Ministry to hospitals and health maintenance organizations (Kupot Holim) to provide medical care to the refugees beyond emergency treatments, several hospitals told Haaretz that they will continue to do so for the time being. A representative of one of the hospitals added that their main concern is for chemotherapy patients, whose treatment costs are particularly high.

The decision to halt medical coverage is already felt by some of the refugees. Oksana Gottfried, a 49-year-old resident of the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Haim, treats her mother and sister who suffer from severe diabetes. The two fled Ukraine after the Russian invasion last year. The mother, 73-year-old Lyubov Bocherova, has suffered two heart attacks and a complete amputation of toes on one of her feet.

Bocherova was hospitalized at the Bnei Zion Medical Center in Haifa for over the last month and a half, and on Wednesday her daughter was asked by the staff to pick her up home immediately. “She’s receiving intravenous antibiotics to prevent bone infection; her leg needs to be bandaged and she’s in bad shape. Where will I take her? They send her home to die and that’s it,” said Oksana, who also noted that the medical staff was surprised and upset by the government’s decision to suspend coverage. The Bnei Zion Medical Center eventually agreed that Bocherova would remain in treatment until Thursday.

“I don’t want to complain. I realize that the state authorized their stay here. I bear all the expenses for food, ambulances and medicine. But when there’s a real risk of death, can’t the state support us?” Oksana said.

The Bnei Zion Medical Center said in response that “The needed medical treatment for the patient is completed and she is about to begin rehabilitation. The patient was allowed to remain at the medical center for an additional day while solutions are being sought.” No comment was given when asked what would happen to Bocherova once she is released.
Natalia Bordkovskaya, a 40-year-old from Odesa, arrived in Israel about a week after the Russian invasion together with her 9-year-old son David. They live in a hotel that hosts similar Ukrainian immigrant refugees in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood.

Last November, David was injured in one of his legs after a bus hit him at a pedestrian crossing. “We already thought of returning to Ukraine before the accident because we struggled financially. But after the accident we realized that we’d have to stay here at least until the winter,” Bordkovskaya said.

David had to undergo two complex surgeries, including a skin graft, and the additional treatments he requires are not available in Ukraine. At the same time, Bordkovskaya is conducting legal proceedings against the Egged transportation company.
David is currently in rehabilitation and being regularly checked by a doctor at the Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Kerem in Jerusalem. These treatments are enabled through the Terem urgent care clinic. At the beginning of September, he is scheduled to undergo another procedure that will help his wounds heal and ease his pain.

“Today we were told that the medical coverage is suspended, and everything is canceled. We are in a very unfortunate situation,” Bordkovskaya said. “This is a [medical] procedure that we cannot undergo in Ukraine because it’s not available there. Ukrainian patients are usually being sent here or to Germany.”

For a year and a half, the Welfare Ministry implemented a government decision to provide humanitarian relief to refugees. The ministry was allocated 100 million shekels ($27 million), with which it assisted 83,000 Ukrainian refugees. 80 percent of this budget was designated for health insurance and services.
“Regrettably, the government did not extend the insurance coverage, and we call on the finance ministry and the prime minister’s office to immediately solve this issue,” said welfare ministry officials. They noted that for now, the ministry will continue to provide emergency welfare services and housing assistance for people fleeing the war in Ukraine who are in Israel, but this is just a small part of the ministry’s activities.
Volunteers and aid organizations received dozens of calls on Wednesday from Ukrainian women and refugees who said they had asked for medical treatment and were refused. A representative of the refugee aid organization HIAS Israel told Haaretz that “Old and sick people find themselves without the appropriate medical care they need. We’ve been receiving calls from people in real distress since early this morning.”
Attorney Orly Levinson-Sela, director of public advocacy at Assaf, the aid organization for refugees and asylum seekers in Israel, said that “Israel’s decision to take in Ukrainian refugees, even though their numbers weren’t large, was the right thing to do. However, abandoning them to a life of poverty and to a reality where they are left to deal with sickness and any other health risks on their own, is unbearable and unacceptable. It goes against not only human conscience but also against the biblical commandment of loving the stranger and our duty to safeguard those in need.”
Responding to Haaretz’s report, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said Wednesday that he “doesn’t know” of any suspension of medical coverage and that he will “check it right away.” Smotrich further stated that “Of course the [medical] insurance would continue, nobody thinks otherwise. It was decided that the Welfare Ministry would take care of it and now we’re discussing it.”
The minister then stressed that “No one will remain without medical coverage … We believe in it from a humanitarian perspective. These people fled war and we welcomed them with open arms and will continue to do so.”
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