500 consultants join the €350m back-pay fight
Up to 500 hospital consultants have lodged High Court cases to secure back-pay in a campaign which could cost the HSE at least €350m.
However, the Department of Health insisted that the cases will be "vigorously" and "robustly" defended in the "public interest".
A "worst case scenario" cost was put at €700m last year.
The pledge to fight the cases follows the last-minute decision by the HSE to yesterday withdraw its High Court appeal against a case brought by two hospital consultants in the Employment Appeals Tribunal in 2015.
The doctors, anaesthetist Thomas Hogan and endocrinologist Dr John McDermott, were awarded almost €100,000 and €14,000 respectively for non-payment of portions of their salary which had been agreed in a new work contract for hospital specialists in 2008.
Around 2,500 other hospital specialists are also affected to varying degrees by the decision of the then health minister Mary Harney not to pay the full salary increases after public finances took a hit in the recession in 2009.
The pay increase - worth an average of €25,000 a year to doctors - was shelved despite the medics agreeing to work a 35-hour week and restrict private practice in return for salaries of up to €240,000.
A spokesman for the HSE said yesterday that the withdrawal of the appeal against the Employment Appeals Tribunal ruling only relates to the two doctors.
However, he confirmed: "About 500 consultants have initiated High Court cases."
He said that "the HSE understands the Government intends to vigorously defend all such cases".
The Department of Health and Department of Public Expenditure and Reform have "responsibility for public pay policy and are working with the Attorney General's Office to progress a comprehensive and robust defence of any such claims, in the public interest".
The Irish Hospital Consultants Association (IHCA) and the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) said they will continue to pursue "unlawful salary deductions".
The issue was contributing to the failure to fill more than 350 consultant posts, some of which got no applicants.
IHCA secretary general Martin Varley said it had severely undermined trust in the HSE.
Dr Peadar Gilligan of the IMO criticised successive governments for "dragging out the issue for as long as they did".
Dr Patrick Plunkett, a retired emergency consultant in St James's Hospital, said that "the HSE and Department of Health have been immoral in their approach to this issue".
"They made an illegal deduction from the agreed salary," he said.
"It has left the consultants uncertain on how much they can trust them in any negotiations."
The HSE has made no provision in its spending plans for 2017 for any potential pay-out.