The country is facing a "secondary crisis of missed care" unless health officials prioritise the reduction of record waiting lists, according to the Irish Hospital Consultants Association (IHCA).
The consultant's group also said a plan must be outlined to enable public hospitals to cope in the coming months and next winter.
Its comments come as more than 860,000 people wait for some form of treatment with 620,000 waiting to see a hospital consultant.
IHCA president Professor Alan Ervine pointed out that the number of patients waiting over a year or longer for hospital treatment is now double the figure prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. For those waiting longer than 15 months it is 250 times higher than in 2014.
HSE chief executive Paul Reid has admitted that reducing waiting lists and clearing the backlog of care postponed during the pandemic will be a “significant issue” this year.
The expanded HSE National Service Plan 2021 published on Wednesday is welcome, the IHCA said, but it does not match the scale of the problem or “meaningfully” address current hospital waiting lists that are “spiralling out of control.”
And while the HSE has reiterated its plan to hire an additional 16,000 staff this year, no target has been set for the number of additional Hospital Consultants due to be appointed and in post during 2021 according to the IHCA.
An estimated 728 consultant roles across the country are currently vacant or filled on a temporary basis by locum staff.
The HSE Service Plan also reduces the official target for the percentage of people waiting less than a year for their first outpatient appointment from 80% to 75%.
Less than 6 in 10 people met the 80% target in 2020.
Similar reductions in targets have been set for 2021 for the percentage of women admitted for hospital treatment within three weeks of diagnosis of breast cancer (from 95% to 90%), access to community palliative care services within seven days (from 90% to 80%), and in the waiting times for assessments such as orthodontics (from 46% to 22% of patients seen within 6 months).
Expected activity levels for 2021 provides for 153,000 fewer outpatient appointments and a reduction of 50,000 in inpatient and day cases compared with expected activity for 2020 outlined in last year’s National Service Plan.
According to the IHCA, such waiting lists, coupled with the risks revealed by the Government in this week’s Living with Covid plan of the continued effect that Covid-19 will have next winter, suggest a hospital system which will be pushed to “breaking point.”
Professor Irvine said the HSE National Service Plan does not go far enough to reduce the significant waiting lists faced by the HSE.
“The appointment of additional, permanent Consultants without further delay and providing them with the necessary hospital facilities are essential to ensure effective solutions that will improve waiting times for patients.
“While government has committed record funding levels for health in 2021, until this money is channelled effectively and speedily to where it will make the most difference for patients - through the recruitment of additional consultants with supporting teams and infrastructure – our public hospitals will continue to have record waiting lists and struggle to address the backlog of treatment due to Covid.”