THOUSANDS of elderly people are due as much as €17m in unclaimed arrears under the state scheme which subsidises nursing home care.
The back money is due to thousands of people who were unable to get funds for many months after the Fair Deal scheme was introduced, due to a backlog in dealing with their applications.
However, it now appears many have yet to claim their cash -- and a significant number may have since died.
The HSE confirmed last night that in cases where people had died without claiming the money back, their relatives will not be entitled to the money owed.
Others may have transferred to the Fair Deal scheme but never claimed arrears for other reasons, including dementia.
The HSE confirmed it has set aside €17.4m this year for back money which may be claimed by residents who were in private nursing homes in October 2009.
This was when the Fair Deal scheme, which provides financial aid to help people pay their nursing home fees, was first introduced.
The HSE said it could not predict "how many people may or may not apply" for the arrears.
It can only be paid out if the application is made by somebody who is alive, and resident in the State at the time, a spokeswoman said.
The Fair Deal scheme was brought in by the last government to ease the financial burden on people paying up to €50,000-a-year to stay in private nursing homes.
Under the scheme all residents contribute 80pc of their income towards their care costs.
They also contribute 5pc of the value of their assets, such as the family home, properties and shares, a year -- for a maximum of three years -- leaving the HSE to pay the balance.
Where assets include property, this sum can be paid during their lifetime or deferred until after their death.
So if the cost of care is €1,000 a week and the value of the patient's contribution is €300, the HSE pays the difference of €700 out of the Fair Deal fund.
Due to the rush of applications after the scheme's introduction, a huge backlog built up with residents facing months of delays.
The HSE paid out €16m in arrears payments last year.
The Fair Deal scheme ran into financial trouble last year when it emerged that the €1bn allocation for 2011 was only enough to cater for existing residents.
It is now much more difficult to get accepted into the scheme.