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Mass blindness claims raise eyebrows in Greece

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Greece, battling a crushing debt crisis, said it would probe a suspiciously high rate of blindness benefits claimed by hundreds of residents on one of its islands.   

Deputy health minister Markos Bolaris ordered the investigation after more than 600 of about 30,000 residents of the Ionian Sea island were found to be pocketing the support grant, a government source told AFP.

“We do not know how many of these people are actually entitled to the benefits,” the official said, without naming the island or specifying the sums paid out.

Greek daily Ethnos said two per cent of the island’s population had claimed the benefit for years, most of them since infancy.    Authorities will now scrutinise the entire Greek social welfare payroll, which costs the state 6.4 billion euros ($9.2 billion) a year, the daily said.

The Greek government is trying to limit social overspending as part of a programme of cutbacks and austerity measures ordered under pressure from the European Union and International Monetary Fund after the country nearly went bankrupt last year.    Chaotic account-keeping has led to a massive waste of state funds for decades.

Last year, labour ministry officials revealed that millions of euros in retirement grants had been paid annually to long-dead pensioners.

The Panhellenic League for the Blind, one of the main groups representing people with a visual impairment in the country of 11 million citizens, says it has about 5,000 members.

Athens, Aug 2, 2011 (AFP)