Israel Tax Authority Probes Doctors Accused of Medical Tourism Corruption

Senior surgeons suspected of taking under-the-table payments from medical tourists.

The Israel Tax Authority opened an investigation Tuesday into suspicions that senior doctors are taking under-the-table payments from medical tourists, while the Health Ministry asked the prosecution to consider ordering a police investigation into the issue.

Both moves came in response to a report aired by “Uvda” (Fact), Channel 2 television’s investigative journalism program, Monday night. The report showed three senior surgeons at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital – Prof. Shlomo Constantini, Prof. Zvi Ram and Dr. Yossi Paz – demanding large sums of money from a journalist posing as an agent for medical tourists. Paz even told the “agent” he would give her a receipt for the payment.

Tuesday morning, tax authority investigators asked the “Uvda” crew for any material that would assist their probe. Later in the day, the investigators went to Ichilov to search for information.

The Tax Authority said it doesn’t comment on investigations. Attorney Navot Tel-Zur, representing Constantini and Ram, said he doesn’t wish to comment at this stage.

The Health Ministry made its request for a criminal investigation in a letter to the brand-new state prosecutor, Shai Nitzan.

“Unfortunately, the [television] report doesn’t leave much room for doubt regarding the nature of the transactions,” wrote the ministry’s legal advisor, Mira Huebner-Harel. “The responses that were quoted, including those of the doctors themselves, don’t alter the picture or remove the burdensome impression that emerges from the investigative report, and the filmed evidence supports this impression to a large extent.”

Huebner-Harel said she wanted maximum coordination between her ministry and the prosecution in investigating the matter “at every appropriate level, including opening a police investigation if you see fit ... This coordination is necessary so that the different layers of action don’t clash or disrupt each other.”

“It’s superfluous,” the letter continued, “to point out the great severity with which the health minister and the Health Ministry’s management view this affair, and their determination to do everything necessary to put an end to any manifestation of ‘black-market medicine’ in government hospitals, and in general, and to bring the full force of the law to bear against anyone involved in unacceptable acts of black-market medicine. As noted, we will assist in and get behind any necessary action.”

Health Minister Yael German said the goings-on revealed by the “Uvda” report must be dealt with “at both the personal and the systemic level. On the personal level, everything must be done to put an end to any manifestation of black-market medicine in the health system. Therefore, the Health Ministry’s legal advisor has asked the state prosecutor to examine all necessary modes of action, including opening a police investigation. On the systemic level, the entire issue of medical tourism must be dealt with and regulated, and guidelines to ensure public welfare must be set. This is being done by a public committee that has been considering the problem and studying the issue seriously for several months already. Shocking as the investigative report was, we must ascertain the facts before making decisions.”

On Monday night, shortly after the report was broadcast, Hatzlaha, an organization involved in medical tourism, wrote to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino and the tax authority to request that they open a criminal investigation into both the doctors featured in the report and Ichilov’s management. The letter was signed by the organization’s legal advisor, Elad Mann.

The Ometz organization, which promotes good governance, asked State Comptroller Joseph Shapira Tuesday to investigate the entire issue of medical tourism, charging that it “takes up a significant slice of Israel’s public hospitals, and the ones hurt by this are Israeli patients.”

“Despite the Health Ministry’s promises to deal with the issue,” the organization wrote, “in practice, the situation hasn’t changed; it has only gotten worse. The number of operations and medical procedures for medical tourists has risen significantly, due to a lack of close supervision by the Health Ministry. Since this is an important source of revenue for the hospitals, their appetite and covetousness have grown upon identifying the potential of medical tourists.”

Nir Kafri