The practice of chasing cancer patients using private debt collectors has been described as "a moral stain on the health service".
As reported in the Irish Examiner, the Health Service Executive (HSE) has spent more than €4 million on debt-collection agencies since 2013. Spending on debt-collecting peaked in 2019 with the HSE forking out €687,214.
People who do not have a medical card or private health insurance are sent an invoice for in-patient fees following their care. According to the HSE, a reminder is sent within 30 days, after which a third-party referral notice to a debt-collection agency is sent seven days later.
Those who attend an emergency department are charged €100, while an overnight stay costs €80, which is capped at €800 in any 12-month period.
The Irish Cancer Society has said the targeting of cancer patients adds to their pain and suffering, with many unable to afford the €80 fee for chemotherapy or radiotherapy sessions.
The organisation called on the HSE to end the use of debt collectors, adding that the Government should abolish inpatient fees for patients.
"The Irish Cancer Society has heard from patients about the distress and anxiety that contact from a debt-collection agency chasing payment for hospital charges brings," said Rachel Morrogh, director of Advocacy and External Affairs at the Irish Cancer Society.
"The worries and fears that are naturally brought on by a cancer diagnosis are compounded by this practice, and we want it to end," she added.
"Going through cancer treatment makes people incredibly vulnerable, both physically and mentally, and this practice adds to their already heavy burden.
"We appeal to the Government and the HSE to work together to bring about a much-needed change in this area."
Despite the call to end the practice, the HSE defended its use of debt collectors.
"The HSE has a statutory obligation to levy and collect these charges and hospitals have the discretion to operate payment plans where appropriate," the HSE replied to Social Democrat TD Catherine Murphy in a parliamentary question.
It added: "Hospital groups have advised that the standard practice for debt collection is to issue reminders of outstanding debts to patients before referral to a debt-collection agency."
Anyone with questions or concerns about cancer can speak to a nurse by contacting the Irish Cancer Society's Support Line on Freephone 1800 200 700.