In recent weeks flights have been coming to and from Ben Gurion airport filled with Israeli passengers, who immediately on disembarkation are met by Magen David Adom (MDA) representatives on the jet bridge walkway. They receive a Covid vaccination, wait for 30 minutes, re-board the plane and return to their homes outside of Israel. They repeat the journey three weeks later for their second jab.
One Whatsapp group based in Cyprus recently advertised such a flight for Israelis based on the Mediterranean island with the entire package of two flights costing $450-550. The group message said that the offer was only relevant if at least 100 people signed up.
This fly and jab format has been operating for the past few months. Only diplomats, representatives of Israeli companies working abroad and their families who are 16 and over qualify for the vaccinations, when they arrive at Ben Gurion airport. But there are loopholes that allow others to qualify. More than a dozen flights from various destinations worldwide have brought thousands of Israeli back home but only for that fleeting half hour near the plane at the airport before re-boarding to return to their place of residence. They do not enter Israel to avoid the obligation of going into isolation.
An estimated 1,400 diplomats and their families have been vaccinated against Covid-19 in this way, organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, of whom 200 are yet to receive their second dose. This week a flight landed at Ben Gurion airport with diplomats from South America. Many had traveled 20 hours and because of that they were given special permission to spend a night in a hotel in Israel in isolation before beginning the arduous trip back to South America. Several flights have already come to Israel from Germany as part of this campaign.
At the same time, 500 vaccine doses were sent this week to New York for distribution to Israeli diplomats based in the US. Some US diplomats have already received vaccinations from the US government as part of a reciprocal arrangement. Israel is proud of the fact that it is the only country in the world that is vaccinating all its diplomats and representatives of companies stationed abroad.
But what about Israelis living abroad who are not representing anybody but are eager to be vaccinated and would even be prepared to pay for the jabs. Israel's Ministry of Health insists that they do not qualify for the vaccinations but the reality is somewhat different.
Which Israelis qualify for a vaccination
Since Israel's successful vaccination rollout began, many Israelis living abroad have been gripped with a fever to come home and get inoculated, anyway that they can. The main obstacle has been finding a flight to Israel with the skies closed. The exemptions committee has not allowed Israelis into Israel if their permanent home is abroad. But in practice there has been a range of ways of getting back to Israel and circumventing these regulations.
Ministry of Health HMO and complementary health services supervisory department director Lior Barak says that Israel has only allocated vaccinations to citizens whosew center of life is in Israel. "The vaccinations are not meant for Israeli citizens living in other countries and who do not have Israeli health fund insurance. Not enough vaccine has been purchased for all the Israeli citizens whose center of life is abroad and there are close to a million people like that."
In order to obtain a vaccination in Israel a person must have a National Insurance Institute account and an active health fund number. Returning residents after five years abroad who are recognized as such by the Ministry of the Interior, can be vaccinated when they have received approval that the center of their lives is now in Israel. Israelis who have been abroad for less than five years, must re-register with the National Insurance Institute, and show that the center of their life is now back in Israel, before they can be vaccinated.
Circumventing the health funds
The burning issue concerns Israelis who return to Israel as tourists with private health insurance, whether with the Israeli health funds or private health insurance. According to the regulations, they cannot be vaccinated. But this is where the gap between the regulations and reality starts. When speaking anonymously to a representative of the Clalit Health Services, on the rights of Israelis here as tourists regarding the vaccination, we were told on arriving in Israel to buy a health insurance policy with Harel or Ayalon, and that this would include the vaccination.
Both these insurance companies do indeed offer policies that provide thje health services of Clalit not including the vaccinations, at least on paper. In practice, Israelis who have bought the policies say that it is a way to receive the vaccination and some of them have already been vaccinated. Speaking anonymously to Israeli international medical insurance company DavidShield, we were told that Israelis who are resident abroad are entitled to buy full health insurance including the services of the Clalit Health Services and 'within that the vaccinations.' The price is set according to age and the insurance must be bought for a minimum period of one month - for a 48 year old we were quoted a price of NIS 840 per month.
Meuhedet Health Services offered an Israeli citizen about to visit the country the possibility of joining the fund's health plan for overseas residents, providing they join for a minimum of six months at a monthly price of NIS 450 (NIS 2,700 for six months).
Leumit Health Services referred us to the Menorah-Mivtachim insurance policy or to enquire about being vaccinated directly by a hospital. Maccabi Health Services offered the Maccabi Welcome Plan at a cost of NIS 380 per month (for a minimum of four months). The tendency for these plans to include a commitment for several months is designed to prove that the person is returning to Israel and not a tourist passing through. But in practice nobody is checking whether the person purchasing the insurance continues to live in Israel - as long as they pay.
A source close to one of the health funds told "Globes" that when these policies were launched, the skies were already closed and so most of the people buying them were those whose center of life was in Israel like students studying abroad and journalists based overseas. "It's in the interests of Israelis that whoever is here gets vaccinated. Few people would pay NIS 2,000 for a four month plan. It won't exhaust Israel's reserves of the vaccine."
When contacted, the Ministry of Health made it clear that such offers are not in accordance with the regulations. The Ministry of Health told "Globes" that it would clarify matters with the health funds and "Globes" was even told that the insurance companies would be required to make matters clear on the issue to those buying insurance.
The MDA loophole
Another loophole enabling Israelis living abroad to obtain vaccinations in contravention to Ministry of Health regulations is through Magen David Adom (MDA). Sources inform "Globes" that the MDA mobile stations are not connected to the computers of the health funds and so it is difficult to verify the connection between the person being vaccinated, the National Health Insurance Institute and the health funds. There are many Israelis who are not living in the country who are able in this way to simply show their ID card. Many Israelis from abroad have succeeded in being vaccinated at MDA stations in markets, bars and outside of yeshivas.
Groups sprung up informing Israelis living abroad about the locations of the MDA stations and although the Ministry of Health has been aware of this loophole, it preferred to maximize accessibility in order to encourage people to get vaccinated. Some people have even traveled to Israel on private planes in order to be vaccinated at MDA stations.
Once these opportunities became known, a more established vaccination tourism began, which is the very thing that the Ministry of Health has wanted to prevent. For example, A came to Israel for a week in order to be vaccinated. "There is immense distress among Israelis living abroad and who want to come to Israel," she says. A bought the Maccabi Welcome policy. "I wouldn't have bought a policy that cost NIS 2,000 for four months, if I didn't want to get vaccinated. Just about everybody on my plane came here to be vaccinated."
Back at Ben Gurion airport many Israelis prefer to be vaccinated at the airport to avoid having to go into isolation. A source has told "Globes" that DavidShield is working with the Ministry of Health to set up a vaccination center at Ben Gurion airport on a fly and jab format. The Ministry of Health said, "The Ministry is examining the subject and will publish instructions accordingly."
In response Leumit Health Services said, "We do not have a policy that we are selling. We do not vaccinate tourists and I have personally seen with my own eyes tourists trying to get vaccinated and being refused. We check everybody individually in order to know if they have come to Israel temporarily or for a period of at least six months. There are not so many people like this, so we are able to check them individually."
Maccabi Health Services said, "The plan is designed for people staying in Israel for long periods. The minimum period for joining is four months and that includes most of the services in Israel's health basket.
DavidShield PassPort Card CEO Alon Ketzef said, "In recent months there have been hundreds of enquiries from DavidShield customers around the world requesting to come to Israel to obtain vaccinations, some of them living in the developing world with health systems that do not function. We work together with the Ministry of Health to set up vaccination centers at Ben Gurion airport. According to the plan offered, those insured with DavidShield that meet the criteria set by the Ministry of Health can come to Israel on special flights, get vaccinated at Ben Gurion airport and fly back to their country after several hours, without going into isolation. A decision about those entitled to this service will be taken by the Ministry of Health in the coming days.
Clalit Health Services said, "Joining the various insurance tracks is carried out by the insurance companies. Clalit provides the medical services."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on March 18, 2021
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