The standoff over the 2006 health budget came to a dramatic close Monday as the government approved an extra NIS 350 million for the addition of several drugs to the health basket.
Per an agreement brokered by the Labor Party, the money for the health basket will be provided by several parties which will relinquish funds promised to them by the coalition agreement.
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Various groups have challenged the Health Basket Committee's decision to exclude assorted medicines from the budget, but a group of protesters outside the Knesset forced the issue into the national spotlight when they commenced a hunger strike 16 days ago over the colon-cancer fighting drugs Avastin and Erbitux.
The protesters drew national sympathy as well as the attention of several senior political leaders including Labor faction secretary-general Ephraim Sneh, who rallied his party to the cause.
Labor's insistence on the issue may have increased tensions between it and Kadima, said senior Labor officials, especially since Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was already irked by Labor Party chairman Amir Peretz's inability to control Labor during the first budget vote.
"I do not see Labor ever voting for a budget that did not have the critical health basket changes," said Peretz during a Labor faction meeting Monday.
Sources close to Olmert said that Peretz "overstepped his place" and that Olmert was irritated by Labor's threats to leave the coalition.
Several weeks ago, when the Knesset passed a first reading of the budget, Labor MKs Shelly Yacimovich and Yoram Marciano walked out of the vote in protest over the budget's lack of socioeconomic considerations. Kadima officials said that following the vote, Olmert lambasted Peretz over his failure to control the two MKs and reminded him that Labor's support of the 2006 budget was part of the coalition agreement signed between the two parties.
"Labor was added to the coalition to help Olmert pass his first and most crucial task - the 2006 budget," said one Kadima MK. "Now they are giving him a headache over it... There is a growing river of bad blood between the two [parties]."
That river will only swell as budget talks continue over the next several weeks, said Labor officials. A Labor MK close to Peretz said that the two leaders were increasingly distrustful of each other, and that the face-off over the health budget did not bode well for how other budgetary issues would be resolved.
Half-a-dozen no-confidence motions have been filed against the government over the health basket issue.
"Ten to 12 billion shekels remained unused from the previous budget... but the government refuses to use it for these dire medicines," charged MK Ya'acov Litzman (United Torah Judaism), the chairman of the Finance Committee. "How could I express confidence for this government?"
MK Yitzhak Galanti (Gil) called Sunday for a new method of selecting Health Basket Committee members.
"There is a need to change the composition of the basket committee and the manner in which it functions," said Galanti. "The government should purchase and supply life-saving drugs, without commission fees, directly to the patients."
Olmert said that as far as he was concerned, the crisis was solved and that he expected the Health Basket Committee to approve the colon-cancer drugs that the protesters outside the Knesset have been demanding.
Olmert approved the funds under two conditions: that there would be no other changes made to the health basket until 2008, and that the protesters would end their hunger strike.
Prof. Mordechai Shani, chairman of the public committee that sets priorities for the basket, told The Jerusalem Post
that he hoped to convene his committee within two weeks to set priorities for the new funds. The committee had originally set priorities for NIS 467m. worth of drugs, but the government had approved coverage for only NIS 310m.
Shani said that there was no promise to the hunger strikers that the two colon- cancer drugs would be included in the basket.
"We will consult with oncologists to see whether they recommend a higher ranking for Avastin and Erbitux. We want to include in the basket not only life-saving drugs but also life-extending drugs," he said.
Priorities for the NIS 467m. will not be changed due to pressure and hunger strikes, said Shani. "The ranking for those will remain the same," but the committee may change its priorities for the additional funds, he said.
Among the drugs to be added to the basket thanks to the extra money will be a drug for lung disease patients, Velcade for multiple myeloma, and Herceptin for women with a low-grade breast malignancy and growth factor for children.
Judy Siegel contributed to this report.