Hospitals in Sussex have racked up debts of almost £130 million in a bid to balance their books.

The hospital trusts will also have to pay back more than £54.5 million in interest payments over the next 25 years.

The biggest loan from the Department of Health was taken out by Surrey and Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust, which provides services at Crawley Hospital and Horsham Hospital.

It borrowed £56 million which it will pay back over 25 years.

Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust borrowed £29.3 million over a six year period while East Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust borrowed £4 million for four years.

The Royal West Sussex NHS Trust, which runs St Richard's Hospital in Chichester, borrowed £23 million over 14 years and Worthing and Southlands Hospitals NHS Trust borrowed just over £17 million over eight years.

MPs fighting proposed cuts in hospital services across the county tonight condemned the Government for putting struggling health trusts under greater financial pressure.

The £54.5 million interest bill for the Sussex trusts is the equivalent of hiring more than 1,900 nurses for a year - or paying the wages of 76 nurses for the next 25 years.

Eastbourne MP Nigel Waterson said: "This is bureaucrats in one organisation charging bureaucrats in another interest when it is taxpayers' money at the end of the day.

"I wonder how much paperwork has been generated as a result and certainly not one extra patient will have been treated."

Sussex's hospitals have been battling to get their finances back on track in recent years, with many bringing in specialist teams of financial experts to help them.

Managers have admitted they need to work more efficiently to provide a cost-effective service that does not affect patients.

NHS watchdogs have also blamed underinvestment with less money being spent per patient in Sussex and other parts of the South East than elsewhere, despite the county's high percentage of elderly patients needing long term care.

Patients are also living longer and advancements in technology mean more expensive drugs are now available. But this has not always been matched by funding.

Changes in the way doctors work under the European working time directive have also added to the pressures.

Projects to balance the books have begun to take effect but have led to jobs being cut and bed numbers reduced as managers have worked to reduce costs.

The extent of the repayment and interest costs has sparked fears they will have an impact on staff and services.

The figures were uncovered by Liberal Democrat health spokesman Greg Mulholland in a parliamentary answer.

They showed that nationally 55 hospital trusts have taken out loans worth £778 million, with interest set to cost £38 million this year alone and £188 million over the life of the debts.

The loans are paid by the Department of Health to individual hospitals.

Mr Mulholland said: "This completely undermines Government claims that the NHS is back in the black.

"In truth, we are seeing a credit culture in our health service.

"A group of trusts are effectively being bankrolled by huge loans. The amount of interest which will be paid on these loans, in some cases for as much as 25 years, is staggering.

"This is money which could make a real difference if spent on patient care.

"The Government promised more openness with NHS finances yet once again they are trying to fiddle the figures to make it look like the NHS is on sound financial footing when it clearly isn't."

A spokesman for the Patient Action Group in Sussex said: "It is worrying that trusts appear to have borrowed so much money because they are going to have to pay it back whatever happens.

"It is all very well being seen to balance the books but if you have got there by borrowing extensively then it seems to defeat the object.

"The main concern is whether patients will be affected by further cuts as hospitals struggle to pay back their loans."

Worthing West MP Peter Bottomley accused the Government of profiteering.

He said: "There is no argument for the Department of Health charging more than what the Bank of England charges.

"They should be charging five and a half percent.

"Anything more is unjustified and counterproductive.

"How can they expect local communities as well as hospital league of friends to subsidise.

"The health minister should stand up to the Treasury and say this has to be stopped.

"It is a system which is not fit for purpose."

But hospital trust bosses tonight defended the decision to take on extra debt.

Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals chief executive Duncan Selbie said: "For a number of years the trust was spending more money than it received, a situation which we are working hard to rectify by making our own services more efficient and ensuring we get paid properly for what we do.

"There is still a great deal to do but we are confident that we will break even by the end of this financial year and not spend beyond our means again.

"We have an annual turnover of around £320 million, our loan agreement was calculated in relation to this and the repayments are incorporated into our financial plans."

A spokesman for East Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs Eastbourne District General Hospital and the Conquest Hospital in St Leonards, said: "The money was borrowed at the end of the last financial year to enable us to improve our cash management and meet our financial commitments."

A spokesman for the Royal West Sussex NHS Trust said: "The loan reflects the cash impact of overspending in previous years.

"The trust is currently in discussions with the Strategic Health Authority about possible ways of repaying its loan more quickly."

Worthing and Southlands finance director David Dumigan said: "Our loan of £17 million will be paid off over eight years and the repayments are included in our financial plans for next and subsequent years."

The Department of Health announced last month that the NHS is on course for a £1.8 billion surplus after running up a £547 million deficit in the 12 months from April 2005 to March 2006.

A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "NHS trusts that required additional cash took out interest-bearing loans with the department that are disclosed in the NHS trusts' accounts.

"This transparent reporting of financial performance will encourage organisations to address financial problems earlier.

"Also, as the system of loans places a cost on overspending, it provides a direct incentive for NHS trusts to deliver improved financial performance."