NAV’s welfare scandal expands

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More than a thousand potential claims have already rolled into Norway’s embattled state welfare agency NAV, while state legal experts believe the actual number of wrongly convicted NAV clients has risen from 48 to at least 79. Prime Minister Erna Solberg stressed again over the weekend that the state will make up for its wrongdoing, to the degree that it can.

Norway’s state welfare agency NAV, which handles everything from pension payments to those for sick pay and unemployment, is at the center of one of the country’s worst scandals ever. PHOTO: Arbeids- og sosialdepartement

“To each and every one of you who has been affected, I want to extend a deeply felt apology,” Solberg wrote in a commentary published in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Saturday. It was the latest of a number of apologies issued by state officials since NAV and the government’s labour and welfare ministry revealed how NAV has misinterpreted both law and regulations applying to payments for sick leave and unemployment benefits. The benefits should have been paid out also if the recipients were physically present anywhere within the European Economic Area (EEA/EØS), of which Norway is a member. Not only were they mostly withheld, those who had traveled to another EEA/EØS country have routinely been punished with demands for refunds, fines and even jail terms.

Newspaper Dagsavisen reported Monday that more than 1,000 people have taken contact with NAV so far, on the grounds they’ve suffered unnecessarily because of NAV’s strict and incorrect interpretation of Norwegian and EU law. The latter often overrules the former, not least in this case because of the EU’s overriding principle of free movement of goods and services over borders within the EU and EEA.

“It’s good that so many have taken contact with us,” Magne Fladby, who’s leading the expanded NAV team trying to deal with all the inquiries, told Dagsavisen. Around 30 people have been assigned to the new task force that’s working from early morning to late at night to identify those who were wrongly punished or incorrectly had benefits withheld.

Magne Fladby of NAV is in charge of the new task force trying to right NAV’s wrongs over the years. PHOTO: NAV

Fladby said the team already had halted 150 cases in which NAV was demanding repayment of benefits for which the recipient was eligible, while another 113 were under review. He said the team also had already contacted 32 of those wrongly convicted of welfare fraud before the weekend, with the others expected to be contacted by early this week. All were told how they in turn can apply for refunds and full exoneration of the charges against them.

A review of cases handled by the legal appeals agency Trygderetten has found at least another 31 new cases, reported news bureau NTB on Saturday. That will add to the NAV task force’s case load, and like the others, the cases reviewed only extend back to 2012 when the EU clarified the rules Norway was supposed to have followed. The principle behind the EU rules extends back to 1994, when Norway adopted its EØS trade and policy agreement with the EU. That means the sheer numbers of cases are like to further swell.

Norwegian regulations that restrict the “export” of welfare benefits beyond Norway’s borders still apply to all benefit recipients who traveled outside the EU/EEA. “Those who have been outside the EU won’t have their cases reviewed,” Fladby said. That will include many of those in a compilation of around 2,400 demands for reimbursement of benefits made when NAV discovered that benefit recipients had traveled outside Norway, and therefore were not actively searchig for a new job, for example, or available for follow-up on their health status.

Among cases where NAV acted wrongly, “the first thing we say is that we are sorry about the situation, and that we will correct it as quickly as possible,” Fladby told Dagsavisen. Any deductions imposed by NAV on client’s paychecks, to get earlier benefits refunded, are immediately stopped, for example, while efforts are launched to arrange compensation for all earlier wrongful deductions.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg has admitted both in Parliament, on national TV and in published commentaries that the state erred in its interpretation of welfare rules, and will compensate those wrongly punished. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Prime Minister Solberg admitted that it will be “impossible” for the state to fully right its wrongs, “regardless of how much compensation we pay out or programs we have. An apology, compensation and a pardon (for those wrongly convicted of welfare fraud) can’t make up for the injustice many individuals have experienced.”

Her government is nonetheless turning over NOK 40 million in immediate extra funding for NAV to help cover task force expenses. Free legal advice will be offered to anyone dissatisfied with compensation offered.

The government has also launched an external investigation into how the scandal evolved over the years and how several agencies overlooked the misinterpretation of EU regulations. The commission appointed to carry out the investigation will examine “all those involved with the case, both under my own (Conservatives-led) government and in connection with laws and regulations implemented under the former (Labour Party-led) government,” Solberg wrote. The Parliament’s disciplinary committee will also conduct a probe of the scandal.

“This is all terribly difficult for those affected, but it’s also serious for all of us who are proud of the Norwegian welfare state and legal system,” Solberg wrote. “It rests on a foundation of confidence. We are all injured when that confidence is weakened.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund