A quarter of those who received benefits for severe disability between 2019 and 2022 were not entitled to them, the Social Welfare Ministry indicated on Monday.

In a statement during which it released the report of an evaluation board into the process for the granting of those benefits, the ministry said it resulted that three of every four persons who received these benefits between 2019 and 2022 were justified in their claims.

The 288 persons found to have received the benefits fraudulently have been ordered to refund a total of €5.1 million, of which €1m have already been recovered.

The ministry said that while an average of 71 fraud cases in the area of severe disability were found every year, the total number of benefit fraud cases found through regular investigations by department officials between 2006 and 2023 was 12,809 or an average of 712 cases per year amounting to €70.1m.  

The scam by people claiming to suffer a severe disability was revealed by Times of Malta in September, when former Labour MP Silvio Grixti was implicated in a years-long racket to help “hundreds” of people fraudulently receive monthly disability benefits they were not entitled to. 

It reported that Grixti, a popular family doctor, provided false medical documents to help people, often hailing from Labour strongholds like Żabbar, Żejtun and Paola, to receive monthly social benefits for severe disabilities they did not suffer from.

Less than two weeks later, the ministry appointed an evaluation board to look into the processes leading to the granting of benefits for severe disability. The board was headed by retired judge Antonio Mizzi, assisted by Anthony Scicluna and Raymond Muscat.

'Assumed certificates were genuine'

The board established that the doctors who sat on the panels that decided on claims for severe disability benefits were reliant on the medical certificates and documents supplied by doctors and did not question their veracity. 

"The doctors always assumed that the certificates were genuine and correctly issued by whoever signed them. The doctors on the panel argued that since the certificates were issued by specialists or doctors who used to lecture them at the university or were well known to them, they had no grounds to suspect that there could be anything wrong in the documents. Furthermore, it resulted that the doctors who sat on the panels were never asked whether they had a conflict of interest."

The board therefore recommended that the doctors who sit on the panels should be increased to at least three on each board (from the current two) and the authorities should consider the appointment of specialised medical boards according to the various disabilities.

Should the panels continue basing themselves on certificates issued by specialists, then the department should introduce strong and ongoing checks to confirm their validity and authenticity.

In the case of non-visible disabilities, reviews should be held at regular intervals.

Where claimants claimed they were unable to leave home, the panel members should visit  their homes.

Furthermore, all members who sat on panels should declare any conflict of interest.

The board suggested the introduction of standard operating procedures.

The ministry said it was implementing the recommendations of the board.

It also pointed out that police investigations into this scam started as soon as the Office of the Prime Minister referred the first suspected case in November 2021. The investigations were now nearing their conclusion and legal action was being taken against 288 persons to refund what they fraudulently claimed. 

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