Private health companies paid £130 million by the NHS
One Belfast based company has received over £44 millio of that total.
Using private companies allows patients to be seen sooner and means that health trusts meet government targets.
Some argue it benefits patients, who are not left sitting on a waiting list, but others question whether it is the best use of public funds.
A GP whose surgery is based in Dunmurry, County Antrim, says an increasing number of his patients are being referred to the private health sector.
It is hard to argue against patients being seen quickly. But as patients are directed away from the NHS and into the private sector, it raises questions about how the health service is being run.
In a climate of austerity, it is can be difficult to understand why public funds are being spent on private clinics – especially when a majority of consultants in Northern Ireland are working across both sectors.
The NHS and the independent sector have always run parallel with a particular emphasis on cardiac patients being seen privately.
However, according to GPs, they are finding patients are also being sent away for less serious procedures.
Between 2010 and 2011, the Belfast health trust spent more than £14.5 million on sending patients to private clinics. Among the specialities are ophthalmology, urology, dermatology and orthopaedics.
In statements, each of the health trusts said they use the independent sector when authorised by the Health and Social Care Board, to enable patients to be assessed and treated within agreed waiting times, when the number of patients waiting exceeds the trust’s clinical capacity to see and treat.
However, despite the threat of financial penalties, none of the health trusts has been fined.
The Health and Social Care Board says it is committed to ensuring that all patients get timely access to safe and high quality care and that services are delivered in the most cost effective way possible.
The board says a significant reduction in waiting times has been achieved through a combination of improved performance and waiting list management within trusts, which includes using the private sector.
It says that use of the independent sector represents 0.4% of the total acute spend (acute covers all spending on hospital services with the exceptions of maternity, care of the elderly, mental health and learning disability).
In 2012/13, the board said it plans to spend £57.8 million on care in the independent sector. This compares to £52.2 million in 2011/12.
Since 2009, £145 million has also been spent on filling temporary doctor and consultant posts.
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