Plans to introduce a single regional health authority have been thrown into turmoil as Health Minister Michael McGimpsey signalled it could be delayed for at least a year - if it gets the go-ahead at all.
He issued a statement saying that, after considering the impact of the Review of Public Administration (RPA) on the health service, "it is now unlikely that there will be any further changes to structures before April 2009".
The single authority was supposed to replace Northern Ireland's four health boards next April as part of sweeping changes to streamline how the health service is run and free up extra cash for front-line services.
The province's 18 health trusts merged into five in April this year, with only the Ambulance Trust remaining the same.
It was reported recently that many of the senior management team in the new authority have already been appointed.
Their combined salaries add up to more than £500,000.
But Mr McGimpsey first cast doubt on plans for the single authority in the summer when he sent a memo to NHS staff saying he wanted to give further consideration to the idea of bringing in a single authority next year.
It is understood he also pointed out that the authority was not his idea, but a plan he inherited when he took up his post.
The Ulster Unionist has written to all NHS staff to provide an update. He confirmed that:
? The current structures of five Health and Social Care Trusts and the Ambulance Service will remain much as they are;
? There is now unlikely to be further changes to structures before April 2009 due to the requirements of the legislative timetable and practical considerations around restructuring.
"I felt at this stage that it was important for me to make it clear to staff that, as I take time to consider the structures of our future health and social care network, that we can all prepare and plan for the continuation of 'business as usual' next year," he said.
"I understand that this delay in clarifying exactly what future change will look like is frustrating for staff, but it is extremely important to get it right.
"Current structures have origins from some thirty years ago. Northern Ireland is a very different place now," he added.