NEWS

The bane of corruption

Paraskevi Mouzaki is 65 years and has suffered from acute mental retardation since birth due to a mistake made during her delivery. Yet even though she was entitled to financial aid from the state, neither she nor her family ever applied for it until 2003. Following her father?s death, her family helped her file for a disability pension of 170 euros a month to complement the pension of 340 euros that she was still receiving from her father?s social security foundation. Even though her disability dates from birth and is clearly above the 67 percent threshold that is deemed an acute disability, she still has to be seen three times a year by a special committee to ascertain that she is still, in fact, disabled.

?Every so often we have to go from one service to another, dragging around a person who can hardly walk alone. It is clear that the state does not trust its own committees,? Mouzaki?s sister told Kathimerini. ?You end up feeling as though you are begging for something to which you are entitled.?

Mouzakis?s story is one of hundreds which make the recent revelations that over 40,000 people in Greece were receiving disability benefits to which they were not entitled all the more enraging. At a time when the state?s coffers seem too low on funds to help those who are truly deserving, money has somehow been flowing freely in other directions. Before a recent census of the country?s disabled population revealed the magnitude of the problem, all that a crafty sponger had to do was know the right person in the right state service to get a special benefit, pension or allowance, without signatures or committees. No one seemed to notice that the percentage of blind people on the Ionian island of Zakynthos, for example, was way above the average for other parts of Greece.

An investigation into that particular case revealed that there was a local doctor who would sign off on disability pensions for a mere 5,000 euros. In fact, Zakynthos until recently had a cab driver who was blind — on paper, at least.

Neither did anyone seem to notice that in the region of Viotia, people were suffering from an inexplicably high rate of asthma or that one in five beneficiaries of pensions for mental disability on the islands of the Dodecanese came from the tiny Municipality of Kalymnos. No one thought it strange that the oddly large number of people receiving pensions for serious physical disabilities in Elefsina, western Attica, had almost all presented certificates issued by the same outpatients clinic, and no alarm bells went off in 2010 when the then-Thessaloniki regional authority issued 1,157 benefits for serious physical disabilities in one go.

Citizens who have benefited from or been abused by the system say corruption is rampant, with employees at state services ?taking care? of friends and relatives with disability pensions, taking money and even housing assistance away from real beneficiaries.

The real victims, needless to say, are the latter, people with real disabilities, many of whom were coerced into greasing the palm of one employee or another so that the benefit or pension was not revoked. According to testimonies, employees would suggest that the assessment committees were also bent and that if they were not ?swayed? by the employee they could revoke all assistance.

The census that began at the start of the year, and whose first stage only has been completed so far, showed that of the 6.2 billion euros spent by the Greek state every year on a total of 77 special benefits, some 110 million euros were going to people who were not entitled to them. One in six beneficiaries, or around 37,000 people, never turned up to be registered during the period set by the Health Ministry, though it is impossible to know just how many people who are entitled to benefits remain off the record simply because they were unable to get to the census offices set up in different parts of the country.

At the IKA Social Security Foundation branch in the Athens district of Kallithea alone, where it was recently revealed that a group of employees and former employees had cheated the fund by issuing false benefits to non-members of IKA and taken a cut for themselves, the damage to the institution was in excess of 10 million euros. According to the case files, five women — one who still worked at the Kallithea branch and four who had retired — had issued all sorts of special benefits to friends and family, including five maternity benefits for a woman who has no children, skimming their take off the top. Investigators found 960,000 euros stashed in a diaper box during a search of one of the women?s homes.

Meanwhile, Greece has to make savings of 555 million euros in its social benefit spending by 2013, according to the agreement it has signed with its creditors.