Trust spent £3m on patient travel
One of Northern Ireland's biggest health trusts spent more than £3 million on transport and accommodation for patients in five years.
Flights, taxis and hotels have cost the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust £3,001,049 since 2008.
Patients were flown to England and Scotland and transferred to hospitals in the Republic for non-emergency operations in a bid to cut waiting times or because procedures could not be carried out in Northern Ireland, according to officials.
But, the bill has angered health service unions who claim the money could be better invested in front line staff and improved services in Belfast.
Joe McCusker, regional organiser with Unison, said: "We certainly are shocked and alarmed that so much money is being spent. There needs to be an examination into whether or not these costs are viable and justified.
"Why can the money not be spent being invested in consultants and proper resources here in Northern Ireland for the people who need it?"
The transport costs emerged following a Freedom of Information request.
The highest amount -- more than £2.9 million since 2009 -- was used to pay for patient and client taxis, however the Trust could not clarify whether they were for fares within or outside Northern Ireland.
Between September 2011 and July this year the Belfast Trust spent £50,076 flying patients and their escorts to cities like London, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow.
For the most part budget airlines such as Easyjet, Ryanair and Flybe were used but there were also Aer Lingus flights to Bucharest and Budapest which cost the public purse over £5.5k.
A further £57k was spent putting patients and their escorts up in hotels like the four-star Radisson Blu Edwardian, the Novotel, Paddington and the Edgewarebury in London. Elsewhere in the UK patients were accommodated in Premier Inns, Holiday Inns and Travelodges.
And, in Northern Ireland, patients have been given rooms at Jurys Inn and the Ramada Encore in Belfast as well as the Fir Trees Hotel in Strabane.
In its FoI response the Trust said: "Patients are sent for treatment outside the trust where waiting times in the Trust exceed the target times set by the Health Minister and where the Trust does not currently have the capacity to treat volumes of patients referred.
"In many cases, independent providers in Northern Ireland can and do perform the work. However, in line with procurement regulations, UK providers provide capacity if this is required. In some cases, for example cardiac surgery and scoliosis surgery, no Northern Ireland providers are available and the work will be carried out in the Republic of Ireland or England/Scotland."
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Belfast Health Trust said: "£2.9 million out of this £3 million was spent on patient taxis within Northern Ireland. The Belfast Trust uses patient taxis for non-ambulance patient transport, which is used to transfer patients from home to hospital or clients from home to daycare etc.
"Flights and hotel costs only amounted to £100k and some of the earlier year costs did include staff flights."