Fears consultants' new lucrative contracts will add to waiting lists
More than 30 public hospital consultants have been allowed to change to more lucrative contracts over the past year to boost the number of private patients they can treat.
They receive a State salary for a 39-hour week to treat public patients - but the new contract also gives them rights to see fee-paying patients in off-site private facilities, it was learned yesterday.
These consultants were previously on contracts that confined their private practice to insured patients treated in their own public hospital.
However, the HSE's green light means they now have wider access to insured patients in private hospitals also, increasing their income and putting more pressure on their ability to see public patients. The concession comes amid growing concern that thousands of public patients are losing out because some consultants are devoting too much time to their fee-paying practice.
One consultant in Galway was found to be working an average of just 23.5 hours a week in his public hospital, although he was contracted to do 39 hours. He was spending around 25 hours a week in a nearby private hospital, 'RTÉ Investigates' showed.
The Saolta Hospital group, which covers all public hospitals in Galway, did not respond to queries from the Irish Independent yesterday asking for a breakdown of its public/private ratio of patients.
The HSE insisted yesterday it was a matter for hospital groups to "monitor and ensure the contracted public hours are being delivered by consultants".
A spokeswoman said "monitoring of the public/private mix is complex". A hospital consultant may be working across several hospitals within the group and fulfilling their contractual public and private mix in this way, she said.
Although generally hospitals should limit the ratio of private patients to 20pc or 30pc, the evidence is that this is being breached. They made up 34pc in University Hospital Limerick last year, and accounted for 43pc of day cases and inpatients in the Mercy Hospital, in Cork.
Although Health Minister Simon Harris said yesterday the HSE should investigate consultants who were allegedly breaching their contracts by treating too many private patients, the HSE said it had not received any formal complaints.
Mr Harris said the breaching of contracts was "immoral, unfair and brazen" - but he failed to explain why the HSE stopped measuring consultants' workload in 2014 and delegated it to hospital groups.
Consultants must adhere to an individual ratio of public and private patients under the terms of their 2008 contracts, and pay extra private fees into a fund. But they have not repaid a cent.