THERE are fears of large-scale life-insurance fraud after hundreds of pre-signed, blank death certificate documents were uncovered at a Port Elizabeth mortuary.
The scam was uncovered during an investigation by the Eastern Cape Health Department which is now also investigating the possibility that similar incidents of death certificate fraud may be happening at other morgues in the Eastern Cape.
In the major bust this week the department, with the help of Port Elizabeth police, discovered that doctors at the Livingstone Hospital mortuary were pre-signing hundreds of blank documents needed for the issuing of death certificates. “This is like leaving a signed blank cheque on your desk. Anyone can walk in, fill in the cheque and walk out with your money,” said department spokesman Sizwe Kupelo.
Kupelo said this was not only against department procedure, but also left the “door wide open” for “unscrupulous individuals” to commit insurance fraud.
“These fraudsters can walk into a mortuary, take the signed form and fill in the details of a living relative and make up a cause of death. They can then take the document to the Department of Home Affairs and fake the family member’s death. Home Affairs will then issue a death certificate, with which the individual can claim the family member’s life insurance.”
DA health spokesman John Cupido said not only was the possibility of insurance fraud worrying, but the “knock-on effects of this were excessively dangerous”.
“If the officials are signing blank documents, it means they are not the ones who are doing the autopsies and that their subordinates, who are not qualified or authorised, are carrying out the procedures.
“How can we trust that the databases are correct or if autopsies are done accurately? What if they get the cause of death wrong in a murder case? Someone’s life could be at risk,” said Cupido.
An investigation into the state of government mortuaries by Weekend Post’s sister publication the Daily Dispatch revealed that Cupido’s concerns were warranted, revealing that in some cases police officers, with no qualifications or authorisation, were performing autopsies. Kupelo said since the death certificate scam had been uncovered a full-scale investigation had been launched. “We will get to the bottom of this and take action.”
He said at this stage it was not known how many doctors or mortuary officials were involved.
“We also don’t know if these officials unwittingly or knowingly, with the intent to defraud, signed the documents. My guess is that they pre-signed the documents to streamline their busy schedules, but this is what we are going to establish. If we find that they were involved in fraudulent activities, we will take immediate action.”
Cupido said he would insist that the department press disciplinary charges against the officials who signed the documents.
“This is fraud. When you place your signature on a document, you verify that the information on the form is valid. If you pre-sign it, it shows that you haven’t done your job.”
Cupido said he would be putting questions about the incident to Health MEC Sicelo Gqobana. “If it is happening in Port Elizabeth, I am sure it is happening at other mortuaries in the Eastern Cape.”
Kupelo said this crackdown was part of the department’s “no tolerance strategy” to “clean up”. The department has been plagued for years by ongoing financial crises and mismanagement.
“We are sweeping the department clean. We have a zero-tolerance stance on fraud, corruption and maladministration. Our message to officials who are involved with these things, is to get out. Leave the department, because your days are numbered,” said Kupelo.
During the past year, more than 700 Health Department employees have been fired or have resigned and health boss Dr Siva Pillay has warned many more would follow. This is part of the systematic clean-out of the department including topranking officials such as the head of clinical services, the department’s chief financial officer, the deputy director-general of human resources, the head of Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and six district regional heads who collectively milked the department of millions.
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