Health service head 'welcomes' comptroller probe

Health Basket committee chairman Mordechai Shani quits, then rescinds resignation.

coloncancerstrikech1298 (photo credit: Channel 1)
(photo credit: Channel 1)
Maccabi Health Services director-general Prof. Yehoshua Shemer, a member of the health basket expansion committee and its former chairman, said Thursday he would welcome an investigation by the state comptroller of "political pressures on [the committee] due to the Finance Ministry wanting to take control" of it. Shemer also urged that the committee meetings be open to the press so its workings could become transparent; at present, the meetings are closed and decisions announced only after months of deliberations. Shemer, a former Health Ministry director-general, formulated the basket expansion committee concept after the National Health Insurance Law took effect in 1995 and there was no mechanism to add new medications and other technologies to the basket. The committee of 21 members - which includes representatives of the health funds, Health and Finance ministries, Israel Medical Association, academics and ethicists - recommends to the Health Ministry what priorities should be given to technologies proposed for inclusion in the basket. The entire basket is provided by the four public health funds with state subsidies, and each expansion must be approved by the government each year. The committee convened at the Gertner Institute at Tel Hashomer on Thursday after the government agreed to allocate NIS 360 million more to the basket while deciding not to expand the basket at all in 2007. That decision was taken earlier this month after colon cancer patients held a 15-day hunger strike to demand the inclusion of life-extending drugs Erbitux and Avastin to the basket. They halted the hunger strike without any formal commitment that the drugs would be added, but the committee was instructed to meet again to decide new priorities. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sent a letter to basket committee chairman Prof. Mordechai Shani (also a former Health Ministry director-general and former director-general of Sheba Medical Center) asking that he change the committee's membership. Shani, who is close to Olmert, had told him he would like to set up a "new model" for the committee, but did not provide details. Shemer maintained that Olmert was influenced by Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson, whose budget division officials "want to take over control of the committee by appointing their own people as members." When the committee members learned of Olmert's letter, they immediately protested and said they would not continue their professional deliberations unless the threat of political interference were removed. "We are not ready to be marionettes," Shemer said. Shani threatened to resign as chairman, but Health Minister Ya'acov Ben-Yizri, who was present at the committee meeting, urged him to remain in the post, and he acceded. Ben-Yizri voiced his "full support" for the committee and its members. Until a year ago, only the health minister had responsibility for appointing the members, but then at a cabinet meeting it was decided that the nominations had to be approved by both the finance and health ministers. "We want our appointment to the committee to be renewed because of the interference." Shemer said that the committee members are "excellent, professional and experienced people. There is no better model for the committee." He criticized Shani for allowing the Treasury to decide that NIS 160 million for which the committee had already set priorities will be allocated only on August 1 and not beforehand. Shani could not be reached for comment, and Israel Medical Association chairman Dr. Yoram Blachar, a member, declined to say anything about the controversy. Meanwhile, Israel Cancer Association director-general Miri Ziv bemoaned the fact that a decision had been postponed and said she hoped that the patients would not be the ones to suffer by not getting the lifesaving drugs they needed in time.