Benefits fraud crackdown targets widows and disabled in care homes
WIDOWS and people with a disability living in nursing homes are being targeted as part of a new benefits crackdown, the Irish Independent has learned.
More than 1,500 pensioners, many of whom are on state and widow's pensions, are under investigation to find out if they are wrongly claiming additional social welfare allowances.
The crackdown is possible because of new powers and the availability of 'Big Brother' data that is allowing government agencies to share detailed information for the first time.
The development comes in the wake of the furore which followed moves by the Revenue Commissioners to pursue 150,000 pensioners who may have underpaid tax.
The Irish Independent has learned that the Department of Social Protection is conducting a separate investigation into nursing home residents after getting valuable data from the Health Service Executive (HSE) which was previously difficult to access.
The residents are getting subsidies towards their nursing home care under the Fair Deal scheme run by the HSE and have had to produce details of their income and assets. They are now being probed to find out if they are also illegally getting a weekly Fuel Allowance and Living Alone Allowance.
Although they are in residential care, their pension book address may still be the family home.
If all of them are found to be wrongly claiming the benefits, the estimated fraud bill could be nearly €1.4m.
The Irish Independent has confirmed that 700 nursing home residents on state pensions and another 700 who are getting widow's or widower's pensions have been identified for examination.
The department is also looking at 16 nursing home residents on invalidity pensions, which are paid to people with a long-term illness or disability.
It said those found illegally claiming will have the payments cut off immediately.
Officials added that they were not ruling out a claw-back of some of the payments.
"Each case will be examined on individual circumstances," a department spokeswoman said.
The Living Alone Allowance is €7.70 a week and the Fuel Allowance is worth €20 a week for 26 weeks during winter.
The spokeswoman said: "If a person is no longer residing alone and has moved into residential care, then the entitlement to both allowances should cease."
Inspectors from the department can now match data between the Fair Deal residents and its own list of pensioners, following the reorganisation of its responsibilities.
The department has 2,000 community welfare officers, who were previously part of the HSE and FAS, under its aegis and this allows more sharing of information.
The transfer of functions has led to the setting up of the National Employment and Entitlements Service, which broadens the scope for fraud control.
Initial inquiries looking at a sample of 569 pensioners in nursing homes who are on the non-contributory state pension found 85pc were getting the allowances.
Eamon Timmins, spokesman for Age Action Ireland, said if anyone lost income, they were entitled to apply to have the subsidy for their nursing home care adjusted.
"The State should make it easier for people to get their affairs in order. They should send all people on a pension a tax return form. If any of these nursing home residents have a liability, it should be recognised as a mistake because many are frail and ill," he added.