MK: Sack Official Discouraging Doctors' Immigration to Israel

MK Yoel Hasson recently demanded the Health Ministry fire a senior official accused of standing in the way of immigrant doctors and physicians wanting to come to Israel by creating impossible bureaucracy and having a condescending attitude.

At a meeting of the Knesset's Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs last Wednesday, MK Yoel Hasson (Kadima ) called upon Health Ministry director-general Roni Gamzu to sack Dr. Amir Shanon, the director of the ministry's medical licensing department, or face a state investigation.

Immigration assistance groups welcomed Hasson's move, explaining that Shanon - who is currently the only address for immigrant doctors applying for licenses here - relates to newcomers in a condescending, hurtful and unhelpful manner. "Dr. Shanon is responsible for the cruel bureaucracy that the immigrants who want to be doctors in Israel and work in the medical professions have to deal with," said Hasson, who chairs the Knesset's Lobby for the Encouragement for Aliyah from the West. "He has a very tough policy that works against these immigrants. He did everything to put more obstacles in their way." "There is no doubt Dr. Shanon is not only responsible for people not immigrating, but because of his attitude and the way he acts, people who immigrated decided to return to their countries," added Hasson. "Dr. Shanon has to move on and pay a personal price for everything he did to these immigrants." Gamzu rejected the criticism against Shanon, Health Ministry spokeswoman Einav Shimron Greenbaum said. When trying to reach Shanon's office, a spokesperson said Shanon was aware of the ministry's official response and had chosen not to answer the accusations personally.

"The ministry will continue to regulate and improve the issues raised regarding immigrants and returning citizens, balancing them with preserving the quality patients expect from medical professionals," Shimron Greenbaum said.

For years, ministry officials have defended the tough licensing procedure by saying they ensure only qualified doctors are allowed to practice here. From now on, the ministry's leadership will hold meetings with representatives from immigrant groups four times a year, Shimron Greenbaum added.

But Hasson insisted on a more tangible change. He threatened to bring up the Health Ministry's licensing procedure for new immigrants in the Knesset's State Control Committee, which he chairs. "I actually gave Dr. Gamzu two months. If we don't see things changing by then, I will even call on the State Comptroller to get involved and investigate the ways Dr. Shanon works."

Gamzu admitted there are currently "severe problems" with accessibility to the medical licensing department. "I am personally leading a reform regarding this issue," he told the Knesset committee last week, adding that it will include an informational portal accessible via phone and computer. He also promised the ministry will add personnel to help immigrants checking the status of their licensing application.

But Hasson maintains these promises mean nothing if they are not followed up with concrete actions. "I told the Health Ministry's director-general that if he actually really wants to make the reforms he is talking about, he cannot do it with Dr. Shanon," Hasson told Anglo File.

MK Lia Shemtov also told the committee that Shanon has been in his current position for "too long" and that too many complaints about him have piled up over the years. Shanon has been serving in his current positions for more than 15 years.

"Dealing with the Health Ministry was a disaster," recalled D., a London-born physician who asked to remain anonymous as he is currently in the process of converting his temporary license into a permanent one. "There's no transparency, there's no way of sending e-mails [to check the status of your application], you have to rely on them to get back to you when they feel like it. You also have to pay a lot of money for translations and notarial statements and you have to make aliyah before you can start the process [of applying for a medical license], which is only making doctors unemployed after making aliyah. If you have a young family that's very scary position to be in."

The Health Ministry only accepts license applications after a doctor has officially immigrated. It also requires all documents to be translated into Hebrew and certified by a notary, which can cost thousands of shekels.

"What really angered me a lot about Shanon is that he phoned me up, after I had been in Israel for four months, unemployed, saying that he doesn't understand why my medical degree is only five years, [while] in Israel it's six years," D. said. "He should have known that in England the standard medical degree then took five years. But he still needed me to get a letter from England. It was crazy, it was surreal."

David Zlotnick, a physician who moved from Montreal to Neveh Daniel in 2008, told of similar experiences. "There is no way for you to check if they got your material or not, or how the process is going," the 34-year-old told Anglo File. "There is no reception area for the public."

Zlotnick now serves as the medical director of the main Terem clinic in Jerusalem and also works in the capital's Shaare Tzedek Medical Center. "No one ever answers the phone. Weeks go by, and you have no clue whether they ever got your application, if they know what's going on with you. You're in limbo for months. You have no work, and no one talks to you. There's no information whatsoever."

Professionals dealing with new immigrants agreed with the Hasson's stance.

"Shanon is a bureaucrat who never cared for the good of the immigrant, who was never helpful and related to people in an ugly manner," one professional said. "He often told immigrants who wanted to be accredited as doctors [but didn't meet his requirements] to go back to where they came from." Mario Laib, chairman of the Council of Immigrant Associations in Israel, said the treatment immigrant doctors routinely receive from the ministry is "humiliating, insulting and degrading."

"We cannot go on one more day with the current system, which has brought the aliyah of doctors almost to halt," said Leon Amiras, the Council's legal advisor.

The executive vice president of Anglo aliyah assistance group Nefesh B'Nefesh, Danny Oberman, said it frustrates him that many North American and British doctors who decide to make aliyah are "forced to endure a difficult licensing process in order to practice medicine in Israel," despite Israel's current physician shortage. "Unfortunately, we are seeing many highly qualified and experienced doctors cancel their aliyah plans due to the debilitating bureaucracy involved in getting a medical license in Israel," he said.