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Medical officials are waging a fierce battle against the controversial appointment of the new head of the Health Ministry's Tel Aviv district office.

The dispute centers around Dr. Rivka Sheffer, who currently heads the ministry's Rehovot district office and was selected to the Tel Aviv post by a state hiring committee.

Sheffer's appointment, however, prompted the heads of the ministry's six other district offices to submit a joint letter to the Civil Service Commission expressing their disapproval. This unprecedented move was backed up by Sheffer's runner-up in the race for the post, Dr. Michael Gdalevich, the ministry's top medical official in its Ashkelon bureau. Gdalevich submitted his own separate letter of protest to the commission regarding Sheffer's appointment.

After the commission rejected Gdalevich's opposition to naming Sheffer, he appealed the decision to the Regional Labor Court.

In her response to Gdalevich's petition, Sheffer refutes claims made against her, citing affidavits signed by senior members of the health establishment - including the chief of the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon and the head of the Israel Center for Disease Control.

This tug-of-war has become a focal point of tension between senior members of the state's medical establishment. The next labor court hearing on the matter is scheduled for July.

A vital cog in the ministry

The Tel Aviv district office is considered a vital cog in the operation of the Health Ministry, particularly under the stewardship of Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman. The office oversees an area encompassing 1.2 million residents, living in cities such as Tel Aviv, Bnei Brak, Ramat Gan, Givatayim, Herzliya, Holon and Bat Yam.

Responsible for supervising medical services throughout the district, the job empowers the bureau chief to approve permits for businesses and educational facilities; supervise sanitary conditions in restaurants, places of recreation, beaches, pools, mikvahs; commission epidemiological surveys; and oversee food quality, pharmaceuticals, the chronically ill, mental health services and burial licenses.

The selection committee, which is comprised of three representatives, ruled in January that Sheffer was the preferred candidate for the job. Her appointment was backed by two committee members: the chairman, Dr. Ari Shamiss, who serves as director of the general hospital at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer; and Dr. Itamar Grotto, the Health Ministry's head of public health services.

The lone dissenter to the appointment was Dr. Haim Toledano, a senior surgeon at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa.

The other candidates considered for the post were Gdalevich and Dr. Irina Volovik, who for the last two years has served as acting head of the Tel Aviv district office.

In his petition, submitted in March to the labor court, Gdalevich argued that Sheffer did not meet the minimum criteria for the post - which requires at least two years in a managerial capacity in the public health system. Sheffer was named head of the Rehovot district office in January 2009.

Gdalevich also disputes the claim that Sheffer served as acting deputy to the chief doctor in the Tel Aviv district office between 2004 and 2006. According to Gdalevich, Sheffer merely worked as a doctor in the Tel Aviv office, a position that did not entail any managerial functions. His arguments are supported by official statements bearing the signatures of six other senior doctors currently serving in district offices.

Sheffer's appointment to the post has been put on hold pending the July 5 hearing in the Regional Labor Court.

The Health Ministry issued the following statement on the matter: "The hiring process was conducted according to the rules as they were determined by the Civil Service Commission and our position will be presented in court."