Pensioners' Ben-Yizri - A health minister who really wants the job

New Health Minister Ya'acov Ben-Yizri of the Gil Pensioners Party, who worked as a middle manager for Clalit Health Services, is a complete unknown at the ministry. But he has one advantage over most of his two-dozen predecessors - he really wanted the post; most of the others viewed the complex, crisis-ridden job as a booby prize. Staffers may joke that the name seems somehow familiar; Shas MK Shlomo Benizri - suspected by police of bribery and other criminal acts - was health minister almost a decade ago, but the new occupant is Ben-Yizri, not Benizri. Ben-Yizri will find a few urgent matters waiting for him, as well as many more fundamental issues that have long waited for someone to make strategic decisions. The first group includes demands to expand the 2006 basket of health services beyond what has been promised by the Treasury and finding money to expand radiotherapy institute facilities and manpower to improve cancer treatments. Ben-Yizri will try to persuade the Treasury to update the basket of health services automatically by a set amount every year, eliminating the enervating and degrading annual ritual of ministry staff having to beg Treasury budget officials for more money. He will also have to decide how to deal with the ministry's many shortcomings, as described in detail in the State Comptroller's Report to be released to the public on Tuesday. The report devotes 200 of its 1,000 pages to health issues. Ben-Yizri will have to devote a great deal of time to issues that have been neglected for decades: How to minimize inequalities in the health system that prevent socioeconomically disadvantaged groups - Arabs, haredim, the poorly educated, new immigrants and others - from getting the same level of care as wealthier, better educated, veteran residents. Inequality in health services was the focus of a day-long symposium at the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute in Jerusalem Thursday. The new minister, who will hopefully stay in the post longer than the 15 people who have held it during the last 20 years, will also need to shift the emphasis from treatment to prevention, which is less "sexy" and more time consuming, but can save a great deal of money. Reducing the smoking rate and obesity, convincing Israelis to exercise regularly, take more responsibility for their health and adopt beneficial lifestyles, and minimizing work and home accidents should all get increased attention from health authorities. In addition, Ben-Yizri should pare the ministry down to a supervisory agency that promotes a high level of health care, eliminating its ownership of government hospitals, which constitutes a clear conflict of interest. He should also work to include geriatric and psychiatric care in the basket of health services provided by the health funds, rather than having these means met by the ministry itself and by overburdened family members. Some will joke about having an elderly pensioner in a post that takes years to understood, let alone master. But given the fact that much younger ministers have come and gone with such frequency, the new minister has nothing to feel embarrassed about. His immediate predecessor, Ya'acov Edri, who moves on to minister-without-portfolio and liaison between the government and the Knesset, held the office for two months. Edri was handed a 400-page tome on the health system on his first day, making it probable he would complete his tenure before reading the book. Ben-Yizri is likely, at least, to be able to finish it.