Israel has much to teach the world about providing health care at a time when governments are struggling to maintain adequate public systems, said the country’s health minister, Rabbi Yaakov Litzman. And his Quebec counterpart appears to agree.
Rabbi Litzman was in Montreal on Nov. 24 for Canadian Magen David Adom’s (CMDA) 40th anniversary gala, where he was keynote speaker. Earlier in the day, he met Health Minister Gaétan Barrette, who was interested in understanding how Israel’s public system is structured.
The province’s health care system underwent a massive, cost-cutting reorganization last year under Bill 10, which continues. Barrette raised eyebrows in September when he said he was looking at the privately insured HMOs (health maintenance organizations) in the United States as a possible model.
In Israel, there is free basic health care, but participation in an approved not-for-profit insurance plan is compulsory.
Barrette said a few days later, at a South Shore Jewish Community event, that Israel and Quebec have similar problems and there may be similar solutions. He is particularly interested in how Israel’s experience might apply to the merger of various McGill University Health Care institutions, now under discussion.
“Israel has a very strong health system,” said Rabbi Litzman. “Israelis’ life expectancy is one of the highest in the world, and all nations want to learn from us.”
MDA, Israel’s national emergency services and blood bank, is an integral part of that system, and its expertise is sought around the world after natural disasters. “They are showing the beautiful face of the State of Israel,” he said.
Rabbi Litzman, a Chassid born in a German displaced persons camp after the war, is very much a hands-on minister. He frequently makes unannounced visits to hospitals, some times in the middle of the night, or when there is a terrorist attack.
Although it relies heavily on volunteers, MDA is highly professional and uses the most advanced technology, he said.
“They are very diverse, from all religions and nationalities. Although they have different beliefs and opinions, they are united in helping suffering and distress,” he said. “Through waves of terror they repeatedly respond, risking their own lives.”
It has 15,000 volunteers and 2,300 employees.
The gala was held at the Old Montreal home of Cirque Eloize, the former Dalhousie railway station built in 1884, and attended by about 250 guests. Cirque Eloize had just returned that month from performing in Tel Aviv.
The honorees of the gala, which was MCed by CJAD radio host Tommy Schnurmacher, were brothers Harry and Simon Rossdeutscher and their wives, respectively, Judith and Fagey. Holocaust survivors, they became successful in real estate development.
Over the past three decades, they have donated six ambulances, most recently in October in memory of Rabbi Sidney Shoham, the longtime spiritual leader of Beth Zion Congregation who died a year before.
As national president Michael Levine noted, the vehicles are manufactured by Demers Ambulance in Beloeil, just south of Montreal. The quality is so good that other MDA support groups around the world are also ordering from the Quebec company.
It’s a fact Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre noted with pride in a video message made while he was on an economic mission to Israel the previous week.
The five ambulances in service have been used in 19,815 emergencies, including transporting 325 victims of violence.
Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, offered a personal view of MDA. About 20 years ago, his daughter Lisa volunteered for two months with the organization. She subsequently became a doctor and made aliyah with her husband, fellow Montrealer and McGill graduate David Zlotnick, an emergency physician. Schwarcz said they met through a CMDA activity.
Schwarcz visited the MDA headquarters this August and was “blown away by the efficiency and technology,” including the innovative three-wheeled Medicycles that allow first-responders to navigate through Israeli cities’ notorious traffic faster than an ambulance. (One was on display that night.)
But beyond that he was impressed by the fact that these volunteers help everyone equally. “The terrorist gets the same treatment as his victim,” he said.
MDA relies on financial support from abroad, and Schwarcz said he has encountered those who think the Israeli government should be entirely responsible. “Israel is no ordinary country, it is surrounded by enemies and spends a lot on security,” he said. “So you are contributing to the security of Israel by funding MDA.”
Past CMDA president Norton Segal announced that the gala raised $740,000. He noted that CMDA contributions also go toward equipment from sophisticated technology to everyday supplies, in an amount equal to or greater than for ambulances.
CMDA was founded in Montreal in the aftermath of the successful rescue of hostages from an El Al plane at Entebbe Airport in Uganda in 1976.