By Anes Alic
Under mounting pressure from the international financial institutions, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) is expected to file criminal charges by the year’s end against 25 medical doctors suspected of fraud in granting disabled status to war veterans.
The charges were the result of recently raised pressure from the World Bank and the IMF on the FBiH’s ongoing revision of the list of disabled veterans receiving government benefits, which will be decisive in showing the government’s fiscal responsibility and budget reductions for the country’s new IMF loan.
In late September, the IMF approved a 410 million-euro loan for BiH, but it is contingent upon the governments’ efforts to save money, including public spending restrictions and tighter control of budget deficit.
Zukan Helez, FBiH minister for veterans, announced that the government will file criminal charges against 25 medical doctors responsible for evaluating and granting handicap status to war veterans.
“The doctors are suspected of taking bribes from the candidates, and in return giving them various diagnoses. But these charges are just the beginning. We will prosecute individuals who fraudulently claimed disabled status, and officials from the veterans’ unions involved,” Helez told the media.
The revision, launched in mid-2011 and expected to end in 2014, has shown that 2,500 veterans falsely claimed handicap status and have been fraudulently receiving financial aid between 50 and 2,500 euros per month.
About 60,000 war veterans claim disabled status in the FBiH. The government is expecting to save 5 million euros annually once unjustified claims are canceled. According to government estimates, 50 percent of veterans were granted handicapped status based on the statements of false witnesses.
Ismar Causevic, who lost a leg during the armed conflict, said that only those who have something to hide are against the revision.
“When you see that the majority is opposed [to the revision], the picture is clear. I couldn’t fake my invalidity. If only the real disabled would receive financial aid, we would have better employment programs and more rights. But with this number of welfare recipients, not even the rich countries could handle it,” Causevic told SETimes.
The government estimates that the majority of fraudulent disabled claims were granted status since 2004, nine years after the conflict ended. Thousands of veterans claim to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Fraudulent claims are a major burden on the FBiH budget, of which nearly 40 percent is allocated for social benefits.
Hamdija Zuko, president of the Sarajevo Canton Union of War Invalids, said that the government should start the investigation within the veterans’ ministry, as its officials were also involved in the fraud.
“A whole system is involved, and prosecution of the doctors is just the tip of the iceberg. The government should focus more on the veterans who were granted disabled status after the war, as that is when most of fraud happened,” Zuko said.
Yet, the problem is also political.
Initial calls to conduct a revision of the list of war veterans receiving disability benefits came in 2002; however, it was repeatedly sidelined for fear of social unrest and loss of votes for political parties.
The so-called war population plays a key role in the electoral process, making up the largest welfare category, and a large part of the electorate.
After expecting a close election race in the 2006 polls, the then ruling Bosniak and Bosnian- Croat ethno-nationalist parties quickly passed a law guaranteeing 80 euros per month to unemployed, demobilised soldiers. The move saved the elections for both, but the budget could not sustain it. Federation authorities sought help from commercial banks to meet their spending obligations.
Previous attempts to conduct a revision of recipients of social welfare failed, as war veterans in particular threatened social unrest. This time around, however, the FBiH authorities are strongly motivated to avoid government bankruptcy.