Proposed funding cuts endanger life-saving care at LWF hospital

By Judith Sudilovsky

Judith Sudilovsky is a freelance journalist who has covered the intersection of faith, politics, people and hope in Israel and the Palestinian territories for 25 years.

Life-saving medical treatments at The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) owned and operated Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem have been put in jeopardy by U.S. budgetary cuts to East Jerusalem hospitals announced by the Trump administration in early September.

“We provide unique medical services for our patients which do not exist in other hospitals in the West Bank and Gaza,” said Badi’a Bajjali, assistant CEO of Augusta Victoria. “Patients who come here have no other options.”

Trump said his administration would cut more than $200 million in aid to medical and humanitarian organizations such as Augusta Victoria. He announced earlier the U.S. would withhold $300 million from the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees.

U.S. funding to Augusta Victoria normally is around $11 million annually, according to a statement released by LWF. Five other area hospitals will be affected by proposed cuts.

A legacy of critical care

Located on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem, Augusta Victoria has served Palestinians since 1950. According to Medical Director Nidal Saifi, it is the only hospital for the 5 million Palestinians that offers radiation and chemotherapy for cancer patients and hemodialysis treatment for children with kidney disease.

Nearly 20 years ago, in an agreement with the Palestinian Authority, the hospital began specializing its care to meet critical patient needs not being addressed. Ninety percent of the hospitals’ patients come with insurance from the Palestinian Authority, which has been unable to pay its patients’ full medical bills. The U.S. and European Union have contributed financially to the Palestinian Authority to avoid a mounting financial crisis for the East Jerusalem hospital network.

“(Augusta Victoria) has been building its capacity significantly with the support of the United States,” LWF noted in a recent statement. “There is a concern that besides the cash flow and operating difficulties, the medical advancement may reach a standstill if the American funding gap is not covered.”

Said Ailabouni, ELCA interim desk director for Europe and the Middle East, said just as Jesus was a healer not only for his fellow Jews but for all people, so too is Augusta Victoria an integral part of providing services to all members of the Palestinian population.

“There is a concern that besides the cash flow and operating difficulties, the medical advancement may reach a standstill if the American funding gap is not covered.”

Lutheran World Federation

“The LWF and ELCA have been very generous in supporting (Augusta Victoria),” Ailabouni said. “The hospital has been absolutely important for the Palestinians. The church … is doing lots of work to bring hope and healing into this divided world, which needs abundant life in the midst of all the struggles.”

Augusta Victoria has been able to operate because of the support of LWF member churches, like the ELCA—which has contributed $85,000 in fiscal year 2018 and also committed $50,000 to the hospital’s emergency response in Gaza—and longstanding partnerships with countries like the U.S.

“We will do whatever we can”

For the next few months nothing will change in the Augusta Victoria patients’ medical treatments, Bajjali said. She said the hospital is in touch with church and other supporters in the U.S. and Europe to put together a sustainable long-term plan so they will not be dependent on outside sources of income.

“This (U.S.) decision is political, but at the end of the day we are treating patients. We need to maintain the patients’ dignity and give them their treatments as is their right,” she said. “We will do whatever we can so no one will go without their treatment.”

Saifi said patients have been anxious since hearing the news, and the hospital medical team and social workers have been working to allay their fears.

An important part of the success of medical treatment is the patients’ psychological outlook, he said, so they are trying to maintain the patients’ hope.

“We are trying to calm our patients down and assure them that we will not leave them, but we know that if there is no (solution) there will be an effect on their treatment,” Saifi said. “I feel frustrated as a doctor, seeing a sick child on dialysis and knowing that soon there won’t be any money for the treatment.”

In the meantime, said Bajjali, the medical bills keep piling up and every first of the month the hospital needs $2 million to pay for the vital medications.

“We will not be able to continue for very long,” she said.

To help

The ELCA provides ongoing support to Augusta Victoria through member gifts to ELCA World Hunger and Lutheran Disaster Response. Give now and your gifts will be used over and above our church’s ongoing, annual support to prevent interruptions to the lifesaving, critical care provided to children and other patients.

To learn more and contact your elected officials, visit the Peace Not Walls blog.

This article first appeared on LivingLutheran.org.

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