The opening shot of the health-care revolution in Israel was free dental care for children. No one could argue with then-deputy health minister Rabbi Yaakov Litzman’s claim that teeth are part of the body and therefore entitled to be covered by national health insurance, but it had never been done.
For more than 60 years it was axiomatic that children could get their ears checked for free at the pediatrician’s or an ENT, but not their teeth. They could even go to the hospital and have tubes surgically inserted into their ears at government expense. But get a cavity filled? You’re on your own.
The operating assumption was that dentists had to be paid privately — and that meant large sums — while doctors could be paid on the kuppah (the health fund). And the devastating result was that children of large and/or underprivileged families did not go to the dentist, allowing cavities to turn into root canals, and root canals into lost teeth, deformed jaws, diseased gums and lifelong problems.
All that changed in 2010, when Rabbi Litzman refused to go along with the status quo. He introduced subsidized dental care for children through the age of eight (which he has subsequently raised). Twice-yearly checkups and an annual cleaning were free. Fillings, extractions and other services cost NIS 20 each, with a maximum of NIS 40 per child for each session.
The effects of the revolution were felt immediately. Suddenly, children were being taken to the dentist in a timely fashion. Costly interventions were saved because cavities were being filled at the early stages. There were smiles on the faces of children and their parents.
And something else happened. The Israeli voter sat up and took notice that chareidi politicians were at the forefront of an issue that mattered to him. This wasn’t about budgets for yeshivos, but about something that everyone needs. And it took a skilled politician with a caring heart, a command of economics and the conviction to overcome the opposition of vested interest groups to gain the government’s approval and budgets.
The National Council for the Child, headed by Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, congratulated Rabbi Litzman and the government on the “beginning of a revolution.”
But it was truly just the beginning. Every breakthrough began with a question. Why should Israelis living on the periphery have to travel so far and wait so long to have an MRI? Today, there is an MRI at Poriyah Hospital in Tzfas with a cardiac department where open-heart surgery is performed. This has been repeated, at various levels, all around the country.
(The only time this revolution was interrupted was during the two years that the chareidim were banished from the government and Rabbi Litzman was replaced by a candidate of the secular Yesh Atid party.)
The latest stage in the revolution was introduced this week. Once again, it began with a simple question, coming from a politician who takes the words “public servant” literally: Why shouldn’t the elderly get the assistance they need? Why shouldn’t their families be given help to properly honor their aged parents?
The answer is a new program, one that provides expanded government assistance for families whose loved ones need home care and 24-hour-a-day in-home assistance. The problem is one that faces populations around the world as people, baruch Hashem, live longer. But Israel, at Rabbi Litzman’s prodding, is offering a solution, to be paid for by raising health taxes for everyone by 0.5%.
This latest battle is sure to be fierce, as it goes against the grain of those who feel that raising taxes stifles economic growth. But, based on Litzman’s track record, the elderly in Israel will soon be joining the children in smiling. They will know that the responsibility of caring for them in their infirmity will not fall exclusively to their children.
In an interview given to the Basheva weekly newspaper a few years ago, the head of Shaare Zedek Hospital in Yerushalayim, Prof. Yehonatan Halevy, was asked to rank the performance of the country’s health ministers. He answered that you could ask any hospital director-general in the country and he would tell you that Israel has had some very fine health ministers, but none comes close to Rabbi Litzman.
The public is reaching the same conclusion, as evidenced by Rabbi Litzman’s consistently receiving the highest approval rating of any Cabinet minister.
Not surprisingly, a recent poll shows United Torah Judaism doubling its electoral strength in the upcoming elections from six to 12. The chief pollster, Prof. Avi Degani of Geocartigraphia Institute, attributes much of the credit for the increase to Rabbi Litzman’s management of the Health Ministry.
Polls are fickle and things could definitely change by the next elections. But two things are certain: the revolution will continue, b’ezras Hashem, and, even more importantly, the general public understands that chareidi politicians are a breed apart who serve the entire public faithfully.
What’s true of Rabbi Litzman is true of all the chareidi public servants. They deserve our gratitude for their service to the public and for being a kiddush Hashem.