HSE could face €700m bill due to consultants' legal action over wages
The HSE could face a bill of up to €700m if hospital consultants succeed in a legal action to recoup money they insist was wrongly withheld from their salary.
The potential €700m payout has been calculated by the HSE and is more than double the original estimate of €300m.
A High Court case, due to be heard in January, will make a ruling on the claim, which could have knock-on benefits for around 2,300 hospital consultants.
It would have serious implications for the health budget at a time when the health service is still recovering from the cuts imposed during the recession.
The row stems from the contracts agreed in 2008 which a majority of consultants signed up to with promises of generous salaries.
Under the 2008 agreement, doctors working at that time were due to receive pay rises - bringing their then salaries up to between €175,000 and €240,000.
In return for the increased wages, they would take up extra hours and weekend work in the public sector.
However, a unilateral cut was imposed on the salaries by the HSE after then Health Minister Mary Harney said the full salary bill was too high for the Exchequer at a time of financial crisis and cuts in public funding elsewhere.
The doctors continued to be among the best-paid public servants in the State, while those on the lower scale were able to top up their income with lucrative private practice.
Two hospital consultants have already successfully won their cases at the Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) but these are being appealed by the HSE.
One doctor received €100,000, while another got €14,000.
Dr John McDermott, an endocrinologist at Connolly Hospital in Dublin, who was awarded €100,000, argued he would have been entitled to a salary of €190,000.
In return, he worked extra hours, reported to a clinical director, and reduced his private practice to no more than 20pc of his clinical workload.
Dr McDermott said he carried out the new obligations, and should have been entitled to have his contract backdated to July 2008.
But the HSE only implemented the first half of the pay rise on January 1, 2009, with no retrospective pay, and never implemented the second tranche due in June 2009.
The Irish Hospital Consultants' Association has claimed that this "breach of trust" is one of the contributory factors to the failure to recruit specialists for key posts in Irish hospitals.
They insist that reneging on agreements, as well as the scapegoating of doctors for failures, means it is increasingly difficult to attract Irish doctors who have gone abroad to return here.
It is exacerabated by the lower rates paid to new entrant consultants in recent years, they added. The result is that hospitals here are very dependant on locum doctors to fill in vacant posts, while waiting lists reach a record high.
Last year, one in four advertised hospital consultant posts received no applications and a similar number received one applicant per job. Ireland has one of the lowest number of practising doctors internationally.