Epilepsy patients and their families are infuriated by the news that scores of people received state benefit payments by falsely claiming they had the condition.
“Families and persons with epilepsy are infuriated about these cases of fraud which have contributed to the increased stigmatisation of individuals with genuine medical conditions,” said Caritas Malta Epilepsy Association committee secretary Robin Pinkston.
“Such cases can also lead to misunderstandings, discrimination and social isolation for those who are already dealing with the challenges of epilepsy,” she said.
Pinkston was reacting to news that hundreds of people were falsely diagnosed as severely epileptic and paid roughly €450 a month in disability benefits, as part of a massive racket involving falsified medical documents that dates back years.
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, but the figure is expected to climb even higher as police continue to comb through all 761 applications that were awarded the benefit between 2019 and 2022.
Family doctor and former Labour Party MP Silvio Grixti was allegedly at the heart of the racket, though some beneficiaries say they obtained the false epilepsy diagnosis without Grixti's help.
“The theft of state resources allocated specifically to those persons with employment difficulties caused by lifelong disabilities and health conditions is more than merely stealing money,” continued Pinkston.
“It is a gross violation of the social welfare system which recognises some people’s genuine difficulties in seeking and/or maintaining employment due to long-term disabilities,” she said, adding such cases throw an “unjust and unfavourable light” on genuine patients.
Describing the neurologists and other specialist medical professionals at Mater Dei as “extremely dedicated professionals,” Pinkston said the association “strongly condemns” the forging of their signatures as part of the scheme.
In Malta, there are around 4,000 people with epilepsy, a condition that “anyone can develop” due to a genetic tendency, stroke, head injury or infection, according to the association.
While an estimated 70 per cent of patients successfully manage their condition with medication and around 80 per cent are able enjoy long periods of time without seizures, others may struggle with forms of epilepsy that are resistant to treatment.
The association stressed that not every person with epilepsy qualifies for financial assistance, with only those suffering from four or more seizures per month and having surrendered their driving licence able to claim for the condition.
To fulfil these criteria, those involved in the benefit fraud racket were given false Transport Malta declarations saying they had given up their licence in addition to the forged medical documents, allegedly supplied by Grixti.
Sources say the racket could have begun even before 2019.
Beneficiaries who spoke to Times of Malta said they were given access to the fraudulent scheme through political connections.
One medical consultant whose signature was forged as part of the scheme said he and his colleagues felt "raped and cheated" and asked how the medical board tasked with screening disability benefit applicants had not picked up on any of the fraudulent claims.
Another medical consultant whose signature was forged, Medical Association of Malta (MAM) president Martin Balzan, has called the benefit fraud racket “organised crime” and said the scale of the scheme suggests it “came from above”.
“This is wrong. Cheating the system is wrong. That money is for people who are seriously disabled,” he said.
Prime Minister Robert Abela has said he learnt of the allegations in late 2021 and immediately forced Grixti to resign his parliamentary seat.
But the government made no attempt to identify or fix problems with the system until last Saturday, when the Social Policy Ministry announced that a three-person board has been appointed to analyse the system and advise on how to improve it.