HEALTH Minister James Reilly has expressed his "shock" over revelations that up to 450 hospital consultants are entitled to a year's holiday with full pay a year before they retire.
He said it was equally disturbing, in light of our current economic circumstances, that they can be paid twice during their pre-retirement "holiday" if they choose to act as their own stand-ins or locums.
But the minister told the Irish Independent that while the HSE was trying to renegotiate the contractual arrangement with consultants, he could not legislate an end to the practice for existing contracts.
However, he agreed that it could end up costing the taxpayer even more money if the State was to challenge consultants over the issue in court.
"When you start spending time in court, that's when it becomes a real problem in terms of the fees and the money that might be involved there, particularly if a court would rule that each individual consultant had the right to fight the case individually.
"The bills would mount horrendously," Mr Reilly said at a reception in Dublin Castle for an international conference at Trinity College on cancer.
Meanwhile, a prominent hospital consultant confirmed last night that he intends to take the controversial pre-retirement year's leave on full pay.
Prof Patrick Plunkett, consultant in emergency medicine in St James's Hospital in Dublin, is one of up to 450 consultants who, the HSE claims, are entitled to take the year off on full pay before retirement.
It is now trying to abolish that entitlement, which was agreed to in 1997 when hospital consultants who signed a new work contract were offered the year in compensation for leave which they had not taken.
Prof Plunkett told this newspaper that when he signed the contract in 1997, he had accumulated about four years' leave after 10 years when he worked every weekend.
"I was entitled to no pay but two days off in lieu," he said.
However, many doctors like himself did not feel that they could be away from their posts for that length of time.
During the year's pre-retirement leave, the HSE must hire a stand-in locum to do the senior consultant's work. However, the consultant can also work as their own locum and so earn a double salary.
Prof Plunkett said he would definitely not be working as his own locum. But he said it was to the advantage of a hospital when a senior consultant stayed on because of their expertise.
When the doctors were asked in 1997 to bundle all the rest days they had not taken, the health service got a good deal, he added.
He also questioned the HSE's figure of 450 consultants being entitled to the year. The HSE estimated if all the doctors availed of it, the cost would be €103m between now and 2027.
"If somebody is retiring in 2027, it means that in 1997 they were 30 years of age. No consultant was appointed in Ireland that young at that time," Prof Plunkett said.
"In order to have got the year's leave accumulated, you would have had to work four years minimum as a single-handed consultant. You would have had to have started as a consultant at the age of 26."