NEW figures show that almost 1,000 Health Service Executive (HSE) staff are currently on "career breaks" that can last up to five years.
The news comes following revelations this week that over 1,800 public patients have been waiting more than three months for a vital bowel cancer test -- more than double what it was a year previously.
The HSE figures, which came in a reply to a parliamentary question, show how 931 health staff across the State are on career breaks which can last as long as five years and must be taken for a minimum of one year. It is not clear how many, if any, of the positions have been refilled in order to provide cover.
When asked, a HSE spokeswoman could not detail what grades of workers were on leave, saying to provide such detail would take weeks, but she said that those on leave were from across the health service and not just front line staff.
The career breaks, or sabbaticals, are voluntary and unpaid, according to the HSE's terms of employment contract.
A staff member can be granted a break for "domestic reasons" -- having children -- or for foreign travel or further eduction, contracts state.
All workers who have passed their "probation period" are entitled to apply, but the empty posts are not automatically refilled and must be approved by an internal employment monitoring unit.
The HSE claims that applications can be denied if the loss of the person's role would have a "detrimental effect" on services.
Employees are not allowed to work in the "Irish State" while on the sabbatical and are not guaranteed a return to their old post -- but they are assured of a job within the HSE.
Finian McGrath, the Independent Dublin north central TD, said the health service was already in "chaos" and could ill afford to have staff out of work.
"This has got to undermine the provision of health service despite any claim to the contrary," he told the Herald.
"We have enough problems in the HSE without a portion of staff missing from the front line.
"Even if 50pc of the over 900 were brought back into the fold, I believe it would be a great help in providing services to sick people."
Mr McGrath said he would raise the issue with Health Minister James Reilly in the Dail this week. He added: "We need all hands on deck at the moment in the current climate of chaos in the health services."
An HSE spokeswoman said a range of different staff took up career breaks from nurses to administrative workers but said it would take too much time to provide a breakdown of the figures. She defended the scheme and pointed out that an application for the break may be refused by the HSE.
"The HSE does not let people avail of career breaks to the detriment of services," she said.