SCORES of hospital consultants -- on salaries of up to €274,000 -- have enjoyed a year's holiday on full pay before retirement, the Irish Independent has learned.
At least 143 specialists in public hospitals availed of the pre-retirement perk in the last decade.
Most were able to take a full year off, while others had paid leave varying from 16 to 47 weeks.
The HSE refused to release the names of the hospitals involved, saying "this would identify the consultants and inadvertently disclose personal information".
The figures relate to hospitals directly run by the HSE and do not include some of the major Dublin hospitals.
One doctor earned another top-up salary by working as his own locum, or stand-in, during his year's leave, allowing him to be paid on the double.
The HSE wants the concession to end because not only must it pay the consultants for the year off but it must hire another doctor to replace them.
The deal was agreed in 1997 when consultants, who signed a new contract, were offered up to 12 months in pre-retirement leave as compensation for leave they had foregone.
Some doctors had accumulated several years' leave they had not taken out of a sense of duty to patients and their hospitals -- where their absence, even over a few days, would have caused difficulties.
Under the 'compensatory' deal, they could look forward to up to 12 months off on full salary the year before retiring.
Figures obtained by the Irish Independent reveal that the largest group to avail of the entitlement was in the HSE West, where 48 consultants took up the offer between 2002 and 2011.
They included surgeons, ear nose and throat doctors, psychiatrists, obstetricians, anaesthetists and pathologists.
Their salaries ranged from €139,822 upwards. It was €274,000 in the case of one psychiatrist who took 10 months' leave before retirement.
A pathologist worked on occasion as his own locum during his year off and was paid €7,126, although he was already on €236,268. In the north-east, 24 doctors took advantage of the offer during the same period with pre-retirement leave ranging from five months to a year.
The pattern was similar in the HSE South where 50 specialists mostly enjoyed a full year off on salaries of up to €235,000. The year off on full pay was followed by full retirement on pensions of up to €115,000 for psychiatrists and €112,000 for some paediatricians.
In the Dublin and Mid-Leinster HSE region at least 21 doctors took leave ranging from 39 days to a full year before retiring on pensions of up to €134,000. In September, Health Minister James Reilly expressed his "shock" over revelations that up to 450 hospital consultants are entitled to the special leave in the coming decade.
The HSE explained that consultants entitled to''historic rest days" under the 1997 deal held on to them if they accepted a new contract in 2008.
"This allows them to take up to a year of such rest days -- on full pay -- prior to retirement."
But a spokesman said it also "requires that they be replaced on a locum basis at substantial cost to the health service pending same". In the early 1990s, these doctors were entitled to eight "rest days" or leave per month in addition to weekends but because of their responsibilities many did not take this time off in many cases.
"During the negotiations leading up to the consultant contract in 1997, the Irish Hospital Consultants Association (IHCA) and the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) argued that a significant number of their members had not benefited from their rest day entitlement," the spokesman said, adding that "the HSE estimates that around 450 consultants working in public hospitals remain eligible for historic rest days".
"The large majority of these are eligible for the full year of historic rest days, meaning that for a year prior to their retirement and the introduction of a permanent replacement," he said.
"Assuming an average consultant employment cost of approximately €230,000, this represents a cost to the health service of €103.5m in the period up to 2027, when the last of the cohort of eligible consultants is set to retire.''
The HSE view is that historic rest days represent an anachronistic and costly means of compensating consultants who did not receive their full complement of rest days (eight days off per month in addition to weekends) in the period 1991 to 1997.
The spokesman added that the HSE had tabled proposals to the IHCA and the IMO to have the entitlement abolished and the "matter is under discussion at the current time".