While front-line health workers struggle on stagnant incomes, NHS bosses have been pulling in as much as a million a year.
Even the heads of some of the UK's worst-performing hospitals have received bonuses of up to £5,000 a day, according to an analysis by the Daily Mail. Some bosses, meanwhile, are avoiding tax by funnelling their salaries through their own companies.
Others are taking advantage of a system originally put in place to help lower-paid nurses and other NHS workers stay working part-time, making it easier to get by on their pension. But this also allows bosses to take huge pension lump sums early by quietly 'retiring' for a day, working part-time for a month, then returning to their posts full-time.
For example, Peter Herring, chief executive of Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust, claimed a £252,000 tax-free lump sum by 'retiring' for 24 hours, before returning to his original job. Sue James, chief executive of Derby Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, netted a £155,000 payout by doing the same.
Others quit their pension schemes when their pension pots reach the limit where the tax benefits run out, only to be 'compensated' with a higher salary.
On average, top NHS executives enjoyed pay rises of 6% last year, while nurses at the same hospitals have had their pay frozen for the last five years. Sky News calculates that if their pay rises had been kept to 1% - a figure which the government refused to award all NHS workers last year - the NHS could have recruited 1,300 new nurses as a result.
The average salary of an NHS chief executive in England is now £185,250, although 47 are making more than £400,000 a year. The highest-paid was Tricia Hart of South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, who made as much as £1.26 million last year - even though the trust is currently running a £4.4 million deficit.
Both health secretary Jeremy Hunt and his Labour shadow Andy Burnham have promised to investigate.
"People who do a good job for patients should be paid fairly, but the NHS is a public service and too often high executive pay has been awarded as a matter course, not because of exceptional performance," said Hunt.
And Burnham commented: "This is excessive at a time when we are asking other NHS staff to exercise restraint. There has to be fairness top to bottom in the National Health Service."
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