The HSE is facing a flood of medical damages claims over the delayed diagnosis and treatment of life-threatening conditions because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Medical negligence claims cost the State €315m last year, but legal experts warned it is likely to "exponentially increase from 2021 onwards" because of how the pandemic has disrupted critical parts of the healthcare system.
Virus cases have pushed acute hospitals into crisis mode because of soaring patient numbers, intensive care demands and staff shortages linked to illness and the need to self-isolate.
While hospitals have tried to prioritise key services such as cancer care, unavoidable delays have hit other areas including screening, cardiac care, orthopaedics and neurology.
The National Screening Service said last month it was more than 60pc behind its annual screening target by September.
Its BreastCheck service was paused for more than six months at the height of the pandemic last year. By November 1, 153,000 women were awaiting mammograms.
Bowel screening and CervicalCheck services were also disrupted.
Fears are now mounting that normal two-year screening cycles may have to be extended to three years.
HSE chief executive Paul Reid acknowledged the pandemic had a massive impact on normal healthcare operations.
He said that at the height of the pandemic, there was a near standstill in normal activity.
In a submission last November to the Oireachtas Health Committee, he warned that while activity had resumed, "there have been enduring consequences" for the healthcare system.
Law firms are predicting they will be inundated with queries from patients alarmed at having vital assessments and treatments delayed.
Michael Boylan, of Michael Boylan Litigation, a medical law specialist, predicted that firms will be inundated with legal queries from patients worried about delayed screening, diagnosis and treatment.
"I would absolutely agree that we are likely to be looking at an increase in medical claims because of the pandemic. We have already had calls from people concerned at delays in treatment," he said.
Firm partner Gillian O'Connor said the psychological impact of the virus on non-Covid-19 patients has been understated.
"People are worried about getting appointments, tests, a diagnosis and then treatment because of the way Covid-19 has disrupted the entire healthcare system," she said.
"Not to mention the fact that, according to the HSE's own figures, hospitals are one of the places where you can contract the virus."
Northern Ireland solicitor Patrick Mullarkey said there could be a tsunami of cases.
"The impact that we have already seen in delayed diagnosis and care will, in the very near future, see a significant rise in the numbers of patients presenting with complaints of a lack of care," he said.
Barrister Doireann O'Mahony confirmed numerous complaints from patients over delays to non-Covid-19 treatments.
"A lot of acute medicine is not getting the appropriate urgent attention because of the pressure on intensive care and beds in wards from Covid-19 and this is having a knock-on effect on other emergency situations," she said.
"The opportunity to intervene in cancer is lost when appointments are cancelled and patients are not seen, and the result of that is an increase in the number of people whose cancer spread and, sadly, the number of deaths.
"The pandemic is causing delays in screening and chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The lack of intervention is what kills people."
A HSE spokesperson said: "Since the onset of Covid-19 there has been significant reduction in all scheduled care activity across acute services including outpatient clinics, inpatients and day cases.
"This is in line with the National Action Plan on Covid-19 which recommended that services were to be maintained for urgent or time- critical patients only at the time."