Tuesday 23 July 2024

“Speak to someone, they will arrange it for you”

This column first appeared inn Malta Today

Picture this…you are caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare to claim what you believe is something you are entitled to and should be rightfully given to you. Months after months pass and you are stuck, getting nowhere.

Then, someone magically offers you a solution – speak to that one, they whisper, he will ‘arrange’ everything for you. So you take up this suggestion and viola’ the thorny issue suddenly dissipates – and you get what you want.

It is an occurrance which happens over and over again on the island. And in a nutshell, it is the story which was recently broken by The Times of Malta, involving a family doctor family doctor, Silvio Grixti, at the time a Labour MP. He provided false medical documentation to assist people, often residing in Labour strongholds. to fraudulently obtain monthly social benefits meant for severe disabilities they did not actually suffer from.

This is not to say they were not suffering from any disability or illness, but that they simply did not meet the exact criteria to qualify for this particular social benefit. To quote the Times’ report:

“Several constituents and patients of Grixti, who were illegally receiving the benefits told police they have been blighted by other severe illnesses for years. They had cancers – multiple slip disks, and diseases of the heart, kidneys, lungs and colon – and had authentic medical certificates to prove them. It is just that none of these illnesses made them eligible for the Severe Disability Assistance Benefit.
Others were injured at work, had been out of a decent-paying job for months and were struggling to put food on their families’ tables. In justifying the fraud, certain claimants said the situation was so dire during the COVID pandemic that they had to choose whether to buy food or medicine.
They were therefore happy to learn that Grixti had an easy solution to get them some extra cash. One unemployed woman was so desperate for money at the time that she described him as her “guardian angel”.”
The scandal has implicated 160 people who have been charged with fraud, and who have to now return the money they received (which at €450 Euro per month over a number of years, runs into several millions). However, while they were indubitably in the wrong for doing what they did, these 160 people were, perhaps, the easiest targets to go after.
Dr Griscti resigned in 2021 and at the time it was reported that he was under Police investigation in connection with “probable fraudulent sickness certificates.” It turns out, however, that this was much more serious than mere sickness certificates but was an elaborate scheme involving several other people. The signature and stamp of a neurology specialist had been forged claiming that the person suffers from epilepsy (which is one disability which qualifies you for this benefit), while fake Transport Malta documents showed that the person had give up their driving license (another prerequisite). In fact, it was precisely because so many epilepsy medical certificates with similar wording were presented that officers within the social services department who were vetting the documents flagged them as suspicious.
Doctors and sources close to the medical board who approved the applications have defended the fact that they did not spot the identical certificates: ““Imagine this: an applicant comes before you saying they suffer from epilepsy. There is no way you can assess the symptoms of a condition like that during an interview and you are asked to decide on the application there and then, so you must rely on medical certificates. The applicant hands you medical certificates signed by doctors you trust blindly, confirming they really have the condition and, according to the benefit criteria, they are truly eligible for the benefit. What do you do? You have no option but to green-light that application,” one source explained.
Meanwhile it is still not clear how far the tentacles of this scandal stretch, but Castille customer care has been mentioned as have Labour MPs and canvassers, who allegedly were all in on it, directing people to Dr Griscti “for help”. We are waiting, as we always do, for heads to roll, as it is getting pretty tedious to be continuously fobbed off by a Prime Minister who promises that “action will be taken” but this action always seems to move at a snail’s pace when it comes to nailing the culprits who dream up these fraudulent schemes.
This brings me to the claimants themselves, the recipients of the social benefit cheques to which they were not entitled. I might have been able to give them the benefit of the doubt that they were desperate and trusted their family doctor, but when someone hands you documents where your name appears, don’t you check them first? And if you check them and see a medical certificate listing a disability which you patently don’t suffer from, wouldn’t that be a red flag? And if there is a document saying you gave up your driving licence when you clearly haven’t, wouldn’t you be a teensy bit worried? And when you piece it all together and conclude that you have been handed fake documents with forged signatures, wouldn’t the alarm bells be clanging and ringing louder than they do at the annual village festa?
The reality is that when there are so many layers of bureaucracy and hoops to jump through to obtain something from a government department, the temptation to take a short cut and “speak to someone” is aways there. In cases involving medical issues and social benefits, if doors have been slammed in your face and you have hit a brick wall I can imagine that when you come to the end of your tether, and there is a ray of hope which involves you bending the rules, you figure it’s worth the risk.
The reality is that it is never worth the risk because inevitably, it will always be the small fry, the little man at the bottom of the totem pole who will get chopped off first. The Government likes to make an example of such cases as if to say, “you see, these people were cheating the system and we caught they them; they will have to pay everything back.” The ruse works on some segment of the population who get all riled up but it also obfuscates the real issue at stake here. And the real issue is that as a country we have made the habit of pulling strings and speaking to “someone you know” into an art form. No matter what one needs from a department, the chances are that many will try to cut through all the usual lowly civil servants and head straight to the top honcho (for which read, Minister or his staff) who will magnanimously grant your wish (especially if you threaten to withdraw your vote).
I can just hear you saying, “Yes, yes it has alway been thus and that is just how Malta operates”. When questioned, one woman involved in the fraud openly said that “everyone is doing it”. The thing is that it will never change if people keep feeding into the status quo either. After all, for someone to be bribed there has to be someone willing to bribe them – and money was clearly changing hands in this elaborate fraud scheme.

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