A woman who fraudulently claimed her limbs were “permanently and totally paralysed” was awarded disability benefits anyway, despite walking normally into her interview before the government’s medical board.

Sources close to the investigation said the woman had been receiving monthly severe disability benefits she was not entitled to for almost five years before the police called her in for questioning last month.

It is the latest in a series of revelations into a massive, years-long racket that saw hundreds of people receive €450 monthly payments from the social security department claiming they had severe disabilities they did not actually suffer from.

Like scores of other fraudulent cases, her application for the benefit was filled in and signed by popular family doctor and then-Labour MP Silvio Grixti in 2019.

The severe disability marked on her application was: “Permanent total paralysis or permanent total severe malfunction or permanent total disease, whether through amputation or otherwise, of both upper or lower limbs.”

The woman suffered from no such condition and entered the interview before the medical board walking and using her arms and legs normally. The board greenlighted her application.

Case raises serious questions

The case raises serious questions on how doctors on the medical board could have missed the stark fact that the applicant was not paralysed, much less amputated, with physicians telling Times of Malta there is no way anyone – let alone a doctor – could have failed to notice if a person with such a severe condition came before them.

In a reply to questions, the director general of the Social Security department – Grazio Barbara – would not explain how the medical board failed to notice it and would not comment on whether the department suspects some doctors on the board were in on the racket.

He said the “allegation cannot be verified as the department is not aware of the person’s identity”.

Barbara said the investigation was concluded and published,  and “the recommendations made are being considered and mostly implemented, especially those concerning the medical boards”.

Questions were also sent to the police, asking whether they were investigating members of the medical board or any official who is working or used to work at the social policy ministry at the time.

The questions remained unanswered by the time of writing.

Woman said she was not aware of fraud

Sources said that when questioned last month, the woman told police she had suffered fractures in her back from an accident the previous year, but she was never paralysed in her arms or legs.

She also told police she was not aware that her application and the forged certificates that Grixti attached to it claimed she had that specific severe disability. She also said she walked into the interview before the medical board thinking her doctor had only applied to get her the benefit because of her back injury.

She said she did not recall the doctors asking her any questions about the paralysis.

The interview only lasted a few minutes, following which the board approved her disability benefit which she started receiving monthly shortly afterwards.

It is unclear whether any of the doctors on the medical board who greenlighted fraudulent applications were in on the racket.

Days after Times of Malta revealed the scandal last September, several of them spoke on condition of anonymity to insist they too were cheated and were as shocked as everyone else to learn about the scam.

They defended their actions, claiming there was no way they could have detected the fraud “because it was designed in a way that makes it impossible for the board members to know if an application was fraudulent”.

The medical board is made up of 19 doctors whose names are publicly available. However, not all members of the board take part in every interview, and it is yet unclear which doctors certified which applications.

Robust application process

Only patients with extremely severe and specific disabilities are eligible for such benefits and not only do they need to have an application filled out by their doctor – it must also be accompanied by several medical certificates signed by specialist physicians and consultants.

The application containing all documents then goes before the medical board tasked with interviewing each applicant to confirm they are genuinely eligible for the benefit.

Yet, this case is not the first time the racket seemed to seamlessly bypass the checks and balances, despite the absurd circumstances which have, so far, come to light.

In October, Times of Malta revealed that another one of the alleged disability benefit fraudsters was employed as a minister’s driver while receiving the benefit for claiming he had epilepsy. He also had no driving licence.

Sources close to the investigation said that in such instances, several stark red flags went unnoticed by a string of officials who were supposed to oversee the process.

Arraignments continue

Hundreds have so far been charged in court for illicitly receiving the benefits and most of them are admitting to the charges and agreeing to return their ill-gotten gains, thus getting off with a suspended sentence for defrauding the government.

Last week, Grixti and four other people were also charged in court with playing a key role in the racket that is believed to have cost taxpayers as much as €6 million.

Police combing through a laptop belonging to Grixti told court they found document templates bearing other doctors’ names indicative of document forgery.

A former cybercrime unit officer said he found more than 400 files that were deemed relevant to the investigation on the laptop.

A top social services department official told the court that the earliest recorded case in the racket dated back to 2016.

The department had so far blocked payments to 321 recipients, he said. Some of those might not yet have been charged.

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