With 30 ministers and 8 deputy ministers, the new cabinet is the largest ever, but not one wanted to serve as Health Minister, not even among the five MKs who will serve as ministers without a portfolio. MK Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party will likely be named as deputy Health Minister, but many say that won’t be enough to solve the many challenges facing healthcare in Israel.
The Health Ministry is the third largest cabinet portfolio with a budget of NIS 24.3 billon a year, surpassed only by the Defense Ministry at NIS 51.3 billion and the Education Ministry at NIS 27.5 billion. It oversees hospitals, health clinics, and health funds and is one of the largest employers in Israel, responsible for over 20,000 workers. On the other hand, few MKs have wanted to be Health Minister as they perceive the task will not gain them much political capital while bringing with it numerous challenges.
The Likud and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) parties signed a coalition agreement Wednesday, making one of the UTJ MKs deputy Health Minister, who will serve as effective Minister of Health. UTJ MKs have traditionally not served in ministerial positions in order to formally express their opposition to a secular state. But even though the party has accepted the ministry, neither of its top members wanted to head it – both MKs Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Litzman competed to be named head of the Knesset Finance Committee instead. The party voted Wednesday 3-2 to make Gafni the head of the Finance Committee, meaning Litzman will likely became the deputy Health Minister.
Critics claim that a deputy minister will not be enough to make necessary reforms. A deputy minister cannot vote in the cabinet nor in the Ministers Lawmaking Committee, through which all laws pass and which the Health Minister has traditionally been a part of. MK Gafni denied that this will pose a problem. “A deputy minister can take part in the cabinet and committee meetings but simply cannot vote. The deputy minister will be responsible for the ministry day-in and day-out,” he said.
Outgoing Health Minister Yaakov Ben-Yizri said that the situation is unbearable. “It only proves the lack of importance all the politicians and power mongers place on the ministry,” he claimed. Ben-Yizri, who is 81 years old, was a member of the now-defunct Pensioners party, and took pride in being Health Minister. He explains that the ministry faces a crisis. “We need 3,000 more hospital beds, 4,000 more doctors, and 5,000 more nurses,” Yizri said. “Plans are ready to be put in place if someone will take responsibility, but with all due respect, that won’t happen if a deputy minister is in charge of the ministry.”
Leading figures in the health field are also disappointed. “It is unbelievable that among our national priorities, health has been marginalized,” Dr. Zev Rubenstein, director of Sheba medical center said. CEO of the Clalit health fund, Eli Dfus, said he was “surprised and disappointed. The choice to settle for a deputy Minister is unfortunate.” According to Yair Amikam, vice director of public relations in the Health Ministry, “Those working in the ministry feel a great sense of disappointment, confusion, and surprise. I personally am embarrassed as both a citizen and a public servant.”
On the other hand, MK Gafni said that his party is aware of the importance of the task. “For UTJ, as a socialist and Haredi party, health is at the top of our priorities. The one who takes the task of heading the ministry will have to work hard with all sectors of Israeli society and dedicate his entire self to saving the collapsing healthcare system. The Haredi public places utmost importance on the ministry and whoever takes the task will be open to constructive criticism from all Israeli citizens.”