A doctor stands with stethoscope in this undated handout photo..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The transformation to come in the Health Ministry was exemplified at Wednesday’s change of the guard ceremony by the front rows filled solely by black-clothed hassidim who will work with United Torah Judaism MK and Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman.
The Likud’s MK Tzachi Hanegbi, who was present at the event on the fourth floor of the ministry’s Jerusalem tower, babysat for the ministry after Yesh Atid (and former Meretz) MK Yael German’s dismissal and had little or no impact on it. The indefatigable woman MK who headed the “German Committee to Improve the Health System” and ran the ministry for two years after Litzman completed four in the same post was missing and unmentioned. It was clear that Litzman will cancel most of German’s decisions, including those of the German Committee, and replace her policies with his own.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is formally the health minister as he was during the Litzman’s previous term (2009-2013), decided to attend the event, which also was witnessed by Health and Finance Ministry officials, directors-general of many of the country’s hospitals, haredi mayors and other officials, health fund administrators and journalists. The premier was not present when Litzman first took over six years ago, but the importance of the ultra-Orthodox to his coalition spurred him to attend, with top security that required non-VIPs to have their hands and property tested to determine if they had touched explosives and sending them through metal detectors.
“Israel’s health system is among the best in the world.
You need to look at what it produces – what comes out, not its cost. The life expectancy of men and women is among the highest in the world, and we have lower disease rates – but that’s not good enough. We have to improve, and my experience with Ya’acov Litzman is excellent,” the prime minister said.
“You are the right man to do it. You were deputy health minister, but you were in actuality the minister,” Netanyahu said UTJ MKs who take over ministries have for decades been instructed by their rabbis not to serve officially as ministers so as not to be responsible for Shabbat and kashrut violations in the public sphere.
However, public groups have asked the High Court of Justice to require the person in charge of the ministry to be a minister, and if they win the case, it is expected that Litzman would be only too happy to take the title – and earn, the deputy minister himself pointed out – “NIS 1,500 a month more.”
Director-general Prof. Arnon Afek, a German appointee and trained pathologist who supported her highly criticized decision to prohibit fluoridation of the drinking water, will soon move return to his job as head of the ministry’s medical branch. “Welcome home,” Afek told Litzman, and also acknowledging Hanegbi’s presence.
Afek’s job will likely be taken by Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, deputy head of the Treasury’s budgets division long in charge of health budgets, whom Litzman knows well and admires.
But the Israel Medical Association is strongly opposed to the precedent of a non-physician becoming director-general of the ministry.
“I am like a doctor here,” boasted the un-matriculated Rabbi Litzman, who spent late Tuesday checking up unannounced on queues in the emergency room of Assaf Harofeh Medical Center in Tzrifin (as he had visited a different hospital on the first night of his becoming deputy minister the first time around).
“The health system is good, but the Health Ministry needs a major shakeup,” said Litzman. “I came back to it because I wanted this job. The system has to help the simplest citizen. The first time, I made reforms,” he said, implying that German’s two years took the ministry in the opposite direction of what he wants.
In addition to speeding up queues and bringing in more physicians to emergency rooms, he intends to ensure that more magnetic resonance imaging scanners are available at medical centers.
“There is no reason for it to take longer than three days to have an MRI,” he insisted.
As for Bar Siman-Tov, Litzman said that the Treasury official “knows every corner – every hole – in the Health Ministry and in the Finance Ministry. Why not integrate both things?” he said as his quiet and modest wife, Hava, was presented with a bouquet of flowers.
Eighty-one percent of the public prefer that the director- general of the Health Ministry is a physician – as it has been since the establishment of the state – and not an economist – according to a survey just conducted for the Israel Medical Association.
The majority of the representative sample (508 adults) that was polled said that having a non-physician could harm the health system and that such an appointee would put finances ahead of medical considerations.
IMA chairman Dr. Leonid Eidelman (a trained anesthesiologist) said that many of the director-general’s responsibilities involve technical knowledge and require an understanding of medical ethics, medical experimentation, medical practices, licensing and professional limits that are lacking in a bureaucrat,” he said. “We will continue to struggle.”