HOSPITALS are hiring debt collectors to try to recoup more than €175m in unpaid fees.
The massive figure for outstanding bills is rising daily as thousands of sick people avoid paying for hospital treatment.
However, the practice by some individual hospitals of hiring debt collectors has been described as "crude and cruel" by Labour's health spokesperson Jan O'Sullivan.
According to the HSE, charges relating to road traffic accidents remain outstanding for "by far" the longest period.
In some cases, consultants are to blame for the delays because they don't sign-off on the necessary documentation in a timely fashion.
Overall, latest figures released by the HSE show that some €175.4m remained uncollected at the end of 2009, but this amount is likely to have risen sharply in the past eight months.
Around €15m worth of hospital bills go unpaid every year, while at the same time the HSE and Department of Health are grappling with massive holes in their budgets.
The health authority noted that the collection of debts "is the responsibility of each individual hospital manager".
Hospitals have a general policy of issuing at least two written reminders at regular intervals after the initial bill has been issued.
But the HSE confirmed: "Some individual hospitals retain the services of debt collection agencies who work on a percentage basis of debts collected."
Labour's Jan O'Sullivan criticised the practice today, telling the Herald that she has "serious concerns" about the use of debt collectors. "It's a crude and cruel way of trying to recover money, plus it's an extra cost," she said.
The HSE is in the process of implementing a new plan for income collection which includes a focus on high value/low volume claims.
Sanctions for consultants who do not sign-off on insurance claims are also being considered.