The Health Ministry has ordered health maintenance organizations to gradually phase out their gender-segregated medical services in ultra-Orthodox areas, a practice discovered recently.
Additionally, the establishment of any type of gender segregation in HMO clinics is prohibited, according to announcement by Revital Topper-Haver Tov, the acting director of the department that supervises HMOs. The ministry's instructions are based on findings, presented in May, by a team appointed by the Attorney General to investigate the issue.
The Health Ministry found that although it is a relatively marginal phenomenon, gender separation does exist in areas that have a high concentration of ultra-Orthodox residents, such as Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh. Some clinics have separate entrances, waiting areas and reception hours for men and women.
In the Haredi neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Beit, the Clalit HMO has a kosher mehadrin service that has separate clinics for men and women. The new instruction from the Health Ministry states that separate services for men and women may "harm women's equality and dignity as defined by Israeli law, and in certain cases may even make certain services less accessible."
Gender segregation in clinics has become increasingly common in recent years, as HMOs compete for Haredi business. Competition is fierce because Haredim have large, relatively young families that move from one HMO to another in a large group.
The HMOs will now gradually phase out any gender segregation that is already in place. Clinics that have separate entrances for men and women will now allow mixed entry from both entrances, and signs at the entrances will inform patients of the changes. In some cases one mixed entrance will be established.
The order from the Health Ministry also prohibits – with immediate effect – HMO clinics across the country from operating separate hours for male and female patients. As a result, each clinic that currently has segregated waiting areas is required to add a mixed area that is significantly larger. The clinic's staff will ensure that it is accessible "without direct or indirect attempts to prevent patients from accessing the mixed area." In cases where services are currently being provided in separate buildings for men and women, the HMO must present the ministry with a plan to phase this out within two years.
The director general of the Leumit health fund, Nissi Alon, says that the HMO does not exclude women, adding that "If it does exist then it is a local initiative – where employees take a sign and write 'queue for women,' on it – but it does not actually exist...not even in the Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem."