HSE paying out €70k each day on private taxis
Cab companies paid €73m in three years for transporting patients
The HSE spends over €70,000 a day on taxis - with one firm last year receiving almost €1m.
Latest figures show total spend in the past three years has reached some €73m.
Documents obtained by the Sunday Independent show that the agency - which is under unprecedented financial pressure - is now one of the highest users of taxis in western Europe.
The revelation comes just three weeks after an additional €500m was agreed as the latest "special payment" to keep the country's health services afloat.
And earlier this year it emerged we proportionately spend more on health than any other OECD country - fuelling ongoing speculation the service is not delivering on a value-for-money basis.
Now these latest figures - arising from a Freedom of Information request - show that outlay on taxis continues to escalate. It will renew speculation that there should be more cost-effective methods of transporting patients - and items such as blood specimens - for example, by expanding the ambulance service.
The cost is for transferring patients by private taxi when they are too ill, frail, or unable to travel unaccompanied, to and from appointments.
Figures reveal two taxi companies in Dublin netted almost €1m each over a 12-month period as a result of payments by the HSE.
A third firm in the capital earned over €600,000 - while another taxi company was paid €550,000. A number of taxi firms around the country were also high earners.
Over the course of a year, a firm in Cork earned €755,000 from the health service - and six other taxi companies in the area had earnings ranging from €200,000 to €390,000.
A trawl through the records reveals the biggest earner in the Limerick region received just under €435,000.
Four other taxi, minibus, and hackney firms in the area earned amounts ranging from €150,000 to €214,000 in the space of a year.
Stephen McMahon, of the Irish Patients' Association, said while transportation should be made available for vulnerable patients, the HSE must ensure they are getting "value for money".
"Many patients struggle to get from their home to a hospital so we must provide a service for them to do that.
"We don't know if we're getting value for money. Are these patients being charged premium rates?
"Do the drivers have experience in basic first-aid? The HSE should think outside the box and consider having their own transportation system attached to the ambulance service."
Fianna Fail health spokesman Billy Kelleher said it should be acknowledged that "tying up high-end emergency care vehicles and ambulances for transferring patients'' is not an option.
"But equally there's an obligation on the HSE to ensure that they are getting the best value for the taxpayer. Getting value for money should be a key priority. There should be regular audits carried out, and there should be very clear, efficient, and effective tendering, in place as well."
In a statement, the HSE said the figures provided only include the cost of hiring taxis that comes strictly within its legal ambit. Further expenditure on taxis is incurred by other agencies linked to the overall health service.
Specific data which would show the cost of transporting patients to and from acute hospitals is not available, the statement added.
Mary Tierney of Patient Focus, said ideally all drivers should be capable of basic first aid, which they could use if needed in an emergency situation.