Interior Minister Shaked Seeks to Bar Medical Coverage for Asylum Seekers in Limbo

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Foreign residents of Tel Aviv in April.
Foreign residents of Tel Aviv in April.Credit: Moti Milrod
Bar Peleg
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Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked is trying to halt a Health Ministry plan that would provide medical insurance to adult asylum seekers who cannot be legally deported from Israel.

After it was discovered that the interior minister instructed her representative on an inter-ministerial committee on the issue to oppose such health coverage, Shaked’s office confirmed the stance. 

They added that the committee had been convened to consider health coverage for non-Israelis under the age of 18 and that consideration of coverage for adults asylum seekers was beyond the panel’s authority.

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Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz is seeking to have the medical insurance for adults included in the pending state budget, and has instructed the committee to issue its recommendations to him so that the matter can be decided upon soon. Such a decision is within the health minister’s authority, and Shaked cannot scuttle it entirely, but she can purportedly delay action on it until after passage of the budget, which by law must occur in less than a month.

In 2019, the human rights group Physicians for Human Rights filed a petition in the High Court of Justice against the Meuhedet health maintenance organization, which is responsible for providing medical coverage for the minor children of asylum seekers. The petition is seeking to have the coverage expanded to other population groups, including the children of foreign tourists. The case prompted the convening of the inter-ministerial committee, with representation from the health, interior, finance and justice ministries. It was to have submitted its recommendations to the High Court by Thursday, but has requested a three-month extension.

In July, Haaretz reported that Horowitz had issued instructions to advance efforts to extend health coverage to adult asylum seekers who are not subject to deportation, and as a result, he asked the committee – which had convened to make recommendations on health insurance for juveniles – to issue recommendations on this issue as well. Some of these adults have been in Israel for 15 years. They hold Interior Ministry visas, but they lack basic social service benefits, including health insurance and are only eligible for emergency hospital care.

According to figures obtained by Haaretz, between 2013 and 2020, the country’s hospitals racked up 408 million shekels ($126.6 million) in expenses for treating patients without legal status in Israel. The committee met with representatives from the Meuhedet HMO and the Finance Ministry’s supervisor of insurance, but has not yet decided on its conclusions.

In its filing with the court on Thursday, the government, which was also sued by the petitioners, said, “There are disagreements among members of the committee on the issues, including matters that exceed the issue of the petition before us.”

Interior Minister Ayelet ShakedCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

According to the state’s response, the committee developed draft recommendations, but there is still no consensus on final recommendations. The committee has been asked to summarize the various positions and present them to Horowitz shortly.

There is a sense at the Health Ministry that Shaked is trying to stymie the process, a source at the Health Ministry said. On the morning on which Horowitz’s plan was released, Shaked said she “opposed any step that would lead illegal infiltrators from settling down in Israel and would use any means at her disposal to have them leave the country.”

For his part, in the past, Horowitz has said that he views medical coverage as a basic right and expressed the wish to have his ministry be “the flagship for equality in Israel.”

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz at the Knesset this week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Horowitz wants to get the input of opponents of his plan to provide coverage to adult asylum seekers who cannot be deported – to ensure that his decision would withstand any legal challenges in the High Court. In the budget pending in the Knesset, 25 million shekels per year is allocated for medical coverage for asylum seekers. But Physicians for Human Rights claims that the sum is only a third of what would actually be required for the roughly 30,000 people who would receive the coverage. The Health Ministry said that the balance would come from other budget lines, and sources in Horowitz’s office said they believe that the balance of the funding would be found in any event.

“The previous government established an inter-ministerial committee to consider state health insurance arrangements for foreign children in Israel,” Interior Minister Shaked said in a statement. “On instructions from the health minister, the representatives of his ministry tried to dramatically expand the scope of the insurance and to apply it to the entire population of infiltrators from Sudan and Eritrea, including adults. The minister opposes any step that would lead to this population to settle down in Israel, and therefore instructed the representatives of her ministry on the committee to oppose this extreme move and the attempt at an underhanded move that runs counter to the original mandate of the committee.”

Physicians for Human Rights said it was disturbing that efforts to ensure access to health care for asylum seekers was being held up due to what it said was the interior minister’s inappropriate opposition. “Shaked’s attempt to block access to medical care for asylum seekers is costing them their health and their lives. Shaked’s opposition to medical insurance can only be interpreted as cruelty to foreigners and xenophobia. Otherwise, it’s inconceivable how anyone could oppose such a humane step. Ultimately it’s a professional decision within the purview of the health minister, and it’s based on public health considerations, medical ethics, health-care economics and basic human rights.”

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