THE amount of money owed by patients to hospitals in unpaid bills rose by €34,392 every day last year.
Figures obtained by the Irish Independent show that despite increasing pressure on the Health Service Executive (HSE) to reduce its costs, the amount of patient bills which are outstanding continues to rise and has now hit €174m.
In 2008, a total of €152m in bills was outstanding, rising to €161m at the end of 2009.
But despite a number of initiatives by the HSE to try and recoup some of the cash, it has again risen, hitting €174m at the end of 2010.
This means the outstanding bills rose by €34,392 every day last year.
However, the HSE insists that it is working hard to get those who have received treatment to pay up. It is not known how many patients the €174m relates to as patient numbers are "held at local level".
Health officials have met hospital accountants and clinical directors to try and get them to reduce the average time that people take to pay their bills -- called debtor days -- as a matter of urgency.
It took an average of some 165 debtor days to get money from people to pay their bills last year. However, the HSE said this is an improvement on the previous year when it took an average of 174 days for people to pay.
The largest amount of money owed to the HSE at the end of last year was for private patient accommodation charges. This amounted to €94.6m by December 2010.
Just over €17.5m was owed through in-patient charges, while €7.78m was owed through emergency department charges and another €16.7m in long-stay charges, according to the figures released by the HSE.
Last year, the HSE said it was considering a number of tough sanctions because of problems with consultants leaving claim forms unsigned for long periods of time. These measures included directly billing private patients if their consultant does not sign off on their bill.
A pilot scheme involving four hospitals -- St James', the Mater, Cork University and Galway University -- piloted this scheme in February of this year, said the HSE.
However, the three insurers -- VHI, Quinn Healthcare and Aviva -- said they would not sign off on full payment unless a form was signed by a consultant.
Another pilot scheme where a secondary consultant has signed off on the details, and agreed by the insurer, had been extended to nine hospitals from the initial six which were taking part. But the HSE was unable to give any figures to show the level of success the schemes have seen.
In addition, the HSE has been using debt collectors for the last number of years to bring in money which is owed to them. These agencies are brought in if bills are not paid after a certain period of time and the "internal processes" of hospitals have proved fruitless.