Janez Poklukar appointed new health minister

Ljubljana – Janez Poklukar, a 42-year-old doctor-turned health manager who has been leading Slovenia’s largest medical centre through the biggest ever health crisis, was appointed new health minister by the National Assembly on Tuesday.

Backed by 50 votes to 31, Poklukar is the country’s 18th health minister since 1990, including two who have been appointed twice.

Having been sworn in, Poklukar invited everyone in parliament to engage in constructive dialogue and cooperation. “I believe there’s a key moment for change in healthcare ahead of us. Together and united for a joint goal we can achieve what we’ve been waiting for in healthcare for a long while. Our patients, staff and every Slovenian deserve that.”

Poklukar will take over on Wednesday from Prime Minister Janez Janša, who stepped in after the previous minister, Tomaž Gantar, stood down in December after his Pensioners’ Party (DeSUS) quit the ruling coalition.

His first priority will be to reorganise the ministry and enhance its staffing. “Then everything linked to the epidemic – evaluation, reorganisation and changed work of the Covid advisory team,” he said, listing seeing to the personal protective equipment stockpile, coronavirus testing and vaccination as well as reforming the vaccination strategy.

He will also take action fast to start tackling long waiting times and prepare the national recovery and resilience plan as well as get ready for Slovenia’s presidency of the Council of the EU.

Poklukar successfully financially restructured Jesenice general hospital before taking over as director general of UKC Ljubljana in August 2019 to succeed Aleš Šabeder, who like him now left the post to become health minister.

His priorities as minister will be battling out the coronavirus epidemic and improving access to health services, after the long waiting lines have only been made longer during the Covid emergency.

In setting out his vision of healthcare in his hearing on the parliamentary committee last week, Poklukar said his goal was universal and broadly accessible public healthcare.

His priorities would be strengthening primary care, in particular community health centres, reforming and increasing financing, clearly defining the basket of mandatory insurance rights, and tackling long-term care.

He also argued for the need to strictly separate public healthcare from private care. He believes the managements of health institutions should get the leverage to better stimulate staff not to leave healthcare.

The debate preceding the vote showed that few MPs doubt his expertise and his ability as a crisis manager and the only reason given by those who opposed his appointment was that he would continue what they see as inappropriate policies of the incumbent government.

Voting against him were the centre-left opposition Marjan Šarec List (LMŠ), Social Democrats (SD) and the Left, while the Alenka Bratušek Party (SAB) and one of the five deputies of the Pensioners Party (DeSUS) abstained.

Deputy groups invariably agreed that Poklukar, whom most praised for how he handled the Covid emergency as UKC Ljubljana manager, would have his work cut out for him considering the mountain of problems that have amassed in healthcare.

Faced with the unprecedented crisis, Poklukar is credited with rapidly expanding capacity for Covid-19 patients, in particular by overseeing the creation of a new Covid-19 ward in just two weeks in a part of the hospital that had been empty for years.

However, many believe that he will have too little time on his hands to implement his many plans as minister with the next regular election due next year, especially in view of the fact that health reform has been promised by various governments for 20 years.

Asked about that, he told the STA last week: “Never say never. We’ll be working on it, we know we’ve been waiting for some reform laws for years, even decades. It’s a goal. We’ll asses in the coming days what the biggest willingness is for and then proceed step by step.”

Poklukar, an internal medicine doctor who lives with his wife and five children in Gorje in the north-west of the country, says he is not member of any party. Even though he would prefer to work as doctor he believes he can do more for people as minister.

He is expected to be temporarily succeeded at the helm of UKC Ljubljana by Jože Golobič, the incumbent chairman of the hospital’s council, with the decision due on Wednesday.