Health Minister Edwin Poots has ordered two health centres to be developed by the private sector against the advice of his senior civil servants.
A business case for the proposed health centres in Lisburn and Newry had pointed towards a publicly-owned asset.
The news emerged when Andrew McCormick, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health, appeared before the Assembly health committee.
Mr McCormick confirmed that he had been directed to seek private finance.
He described the move as an "experiment" but rejected SDLP MLA Conall McDevitt's characterisation of this as "gambling".
Ministerial directions are infrequent and usually issued when a decision is taken that does not offer the best value for money or outcome for the taxpayer.
Mr McCormick said the minister was within his rights to take the decision but Mr McDevitt said this was contrary to the financial rules and a recent vote against privatisation in the Assembly.
He said these centres should remain within NHS ownership.