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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )
Deputy Health Minister Ya'acov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) would be willing to serve as a full minister if the High Court of Justice required it and his rabbinical arbiters - primarily the Gerrer rebbe, Rabbi Ya'acov Aryeh Alter - approved it.
But Litzman, in an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post on Monday, said he did not think the court would accept the petition filed by the Israel Medical Association, which demands that a full minister be appointed.
Agudat Yisrael, the haredi party that is now a partner in UTJ, had a welfare minister representing it until 1953. But when then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion tried to push through a law requiring all religious girls to perform national service, Agudat Yisrael left the government and refused to serve in the government in any capacity until Menachem Begin became prime minister in 1977.
Since then, the haredi party has had a few deputy ministers in charge of ministries, but refuses to appoint ministers because that would imply taking responsibility for state violations of Halacha. Deputy ministers are not cabinet members and do not vote on government decisions.
The child of Holocaust survivors, Litzman, a 60-year-old Ger Hassid, grew up in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn, and is fluent in English; he made aliya in 1966 to study in yeshiva. A self-taught economics whiz, he has served twice as the chairman of the powerful Knesset Finance Committee, and is well-versed in health issues.
Litzman told the Post he had all the powers of a minister except a vote in the cabinet, and noted that he had been invited to every cabinet meeting so far.
The ministry and the health system are due for a shake-up and a change in priorities if Litzman succeeds in carrying out his planned reforms. He wants to change the ministry's work ethic, and serves as an example by being almost the first one to arrive at his offices and the last to leave.
His first priority, he declared, was to ensure that public hospitals had senior physicians - Jews and non-Jews - on duty over the weekends to treat patients and not only to be on call.
"From early Thursday afternoons until the beginning of Sundays, there are no senior physicians in hospitals, as they work in private clinics and hospitals or are off," he said. "This cannot go on."
Just over two weeks into the job, he has already taken action to abolish fees in Tipat Halav (well-baby) clinics so that no parent is discouraged from bringing their child for vaccinations and check-ups due to the hundreds of shekels a year they would have to pay. Israel is one of the few developed countries to require such payment for public well-baby care.
Litzman said he was well aware of the importance of preventing disease by fighting smoking and promoting early diagnosis of chronic disorders. He wants to shift the ministry's almost-sole focus on treating the sick to give prevention more attention and resources.
He also wants to introduce private medical care (Sharap) in all the country's public hospitals, not just in Jerusalem, where it has existed and proved itself for decades.
However, he said that strict supervision would be needed to prevent the financially disadvantaged from getting lower-level care.
Unlike several of his predecessors, he is not keen on shifting responsibility for geriatric and psychiatric care to the health funds.
"I immediately had to face the threat of a world influenza epidemic," he noted. "Even though I'm new, people are already expecting a lot from me. I don't want to desecrate God's name by failing."
A full report on the interview with Litzman will appear on the Sunday Health Page on May 10.