THE cash-strapped HSE has paid out more than €760,000 to debt collectors since 2011, the Herald can reveal.
Three main companies are being paid huge sums by the State to chase down patients for alleged unpaid hospital bills.
According to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, just over €762,000 was handed over to the agencies since January 2011.
And remarkably, a greater sum has been paid out in the first eight months of 2012 than the entire fee collected by the debt collectors last year.
It suggests that the HSE is becoming more aggressive in its bid to recoup debts.
Just last month it was revealed that more than 50,000 patients have refused to pay the €100 fee for accessing Accident and Emergency departments.
As a result, Health Minister James Reilly was forced to write off €4.1m.
The three main firms used by hospitals are international debt collection agent, Intrum Justita, Wicklow-based firm Debitask and LCMS Ltd Debt Collection.
And the Herald can today detail the main hospitals whose patients have been pursued by the debt collectors.
Beaumont Hospital is the biggest spender, according to the figures, and has paid out €165,035 since 2011.
The Dublin-based facility is followed by Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda which paid over €58,826 to LCMS.
Other large sums have been forked out by Connolly Hospital in Blanchardstown (€55,119), Tullamore General Hospital (¤54,302) and Waterford Regional Hospital (€47,890).
The southern branch of the HSE has paid €131,629 since January 2011, the figures show.
There were calls today for the HSE to "completely end" the hiring of debt collectors.
Fianna Fail Health spokesman Billy Kelleher told the Herald: "I find it difficult to stomach the concept of the HSE allowing debt collectors to personally pursue people who may have spent a difficult and distressing period in hospital."
And the Irish Patients Association (IPA), which recently held talks with Troika officials over our health system, said the practice of using debt collectors must be ended.
"We have encountered situations where people have received letters demanding cash and they had in fact settled their bills. That can be extremely annoying and distressing," chairman Steve McMahon told the Herald.
"The HSE must change tack and use internal officials to collect debt -- not a small handful of firms," he added.
The HSE was unable to comment before going to press.
However a well-placed HSE source emphasised that it "actively encourages" its collection agencies against using any tactics which may intimidate members of the public.