PATIENTS are being hit with extra health charges depending on which hospital they attend.
People pay €100 to attend A&E and -- according to Department of Health guidelines -- should then be treated for free if they have to return to the hospital for any reason with the same problem.
But an Irish Independent survey has found that some hospitals are enforcing time limits -- so that patients can be charged several times for treatment for the same condition.
More than one million people attend A&E departments around the country annually.
The €100 charge, which is not levied on patients with certain exemptions, has been in place since 2009. In Beaumont Hospital, Dublin, the €100 charge covers a patient indefinitely and in University College Hospital Galway, it lasts for a year.
But the €100 cover runs out in four weeks in Wexford General hospital and in six weeks in Waterford Regional hospital.
In other hospitals it lasts for a week and in others such as Cork University hospital, it lasts for two weeks.
Tallaght Hospital, in Dublin, recently reduced the length of cover from a year to 30 days.
The Irish Independent survey involved phone calls to the patient accounts departments of each hospital on two separate days last week.
Examples of illnesses which may involve return visits include injuries like torn ligament, where a patient may have to go back to A&E on a number of occasions over six months for treatment and scans.
Stephen McMahon of the Irish Patients Association said there appeared to be a "scattergun policy".
"We need a unified approach which is equitable," he said. "There should be clear notice on the board of the A&E setting out the time limits.
"We would not object to a time limit being imposed but it should be reasonable and consistent," he added.
A spokeswoman for the HSE said that return visits in relation to the same illness or accident should not be subject to any additional charge.
"When a person presents at an emergency department,they are charged €100 unless they are eligible for an exemption," she said.
"If the person requires follow up care they will normally attend an outpatients clinic where no further charge is applied.
"If they attend an emergency department with the same complaint they should inform staff," she advised.
People who have complaints can ring lo-call 1890 424 555.