Some 141 people have so far been ordered to return a total of €2.1 million in severe disability assistance benefits they were not entitled to as police continue to investigate a huge racket linked to an ex-Labour MP.
That figure, supplied by the Ministry for Social Policy, is expected to climb even higher as officers continue to comb through all 761 applications that were awarded the benefit between 2019 and 2022.
The police are assessing how many of these were fraudulent claims as evidence indicates family doctor Silvio Grixti provided false medical certificates for people to receive benefits of around €450 a month that they were not entitled to.
Dozens of claimants who benefitted from the racket have already been charged and more people are expected to be arraigned in the coming weeks.
The majority have admitted to fraud charges and agreed to return their ill-gotten gains, and have received suspended sentences.
Responding to questions from Times of Malta, the Ministry for Social Policy said that authorities have so far stopped issuing the benefit to 141 cases in which people were found to have fraudulently taken money they were not entitled to.
Between them they defrauded taxpayers of €2.1 million and authorities have launched actions to get the money back. The ministry said €330,000 has already been recouped.
The ministry said in all 141 cases, the benefit was awarded before September last year.
Claimants have been reaching agreements with the Social Security Department to return the amounts illicitly received from the scam.
Ordered to return between €11,000 and €25,000 each
Those who have been receiving the money for a few years have been ordered to return between €11,000 and €25,000 each.
The ministry said that in September last year, its Income Support and Compliance Division (ISCD) detected suspicious severe disability assistance applications and alerted the police to possible forged medical certificates.
“The ISCD has operational procedures aimed at preventing and detecting benefit fraud and these procedures are effective and are reviewed regularly,” a ministry spokesperson said.
“This process led the ISCD to alert the police about possible forged medical certifications submitted with applications for Severe Disability Assistance (SDA).
“Following further investigations by the police, the ISCD was instructed to refer details of all the cases that were awarded an SDA between 2019 and 2022. However, this does not mean that all these cases are fraudulent.”
Police had first questioned Grixti in connection with the case a year earlier when he had also resigned as MP, but the Ministry said it was never privy to those investigations and only became suspicious last year when it came across “a number of applications which had suspected forged medical documentation”, which it then forwarded to police for further investigations.
The revelation has raised questions over why the government-appointed medical board, which is tasked with validating the applications, did not notice or disclose the fraudulent applications.
'No instructions to suspend medical board members'
The ministry said it accepts the decisions of the medical board which is lawfully appointed under the Social Security Act.
“The decision of such medical panels, whether to approve or reject applications for such benefits, would represent the basis for the ISCD and the Social Security Department to accept or reject such applications,” the spokesperson said.
“Such decisions about medical eligibility are thus totally dependent on the decision of the respective medical panels.”
Asked whether it has suspended any medical board members or reported them to the police, the Ministry said it had not received “any instructions or tangible feedback from the police to suggest taking such course of action”.
Times of Malta has sent questions to the government-appointed medical board.
The story on Sunday revealed how claimants told police investigators that they were referred to Grixti by a Labour minister, a now deceased PL MP, ministers’ aides, and even customer care officials from Castille. The Office of the Prime Minister denied ever referring people to any fraudulent scheme.
But sources said the racket became so well known within Labour circles that it took a life of its own, with some claimants telling police they obtained the forged certificates from people other than Grixti.
Meanwhile, in an open letter published on Tuesday, independent candidate Arnold Cassola urged government and opposition MPs from the 2nd, 3rd and 4th districts, to publicly declare that they or their aides never referred people to Grixti with the intent of helping them “exploit this illegal, disgusting scheme”.
And in a reply to Times of Malta questions, the Commissioner for the Rights of Persons with Disability said that “it is important that where government funds are allocated, there should always be full transparency to ensure dissemination is fair and justifiable”.