10/17/2011 10:00 EDT | Updated 12/17/2011 05:12 EST

Premier says patient care will not be affected by health budget cuts

HALIFAX - A proposed three per cent cut in health care spending in Nova Scotia should not affect patient care, Premier Darrell Dexter said Monday, an assertion that one top health care administrator said she couldn't make.

Dexter said the cutbacks are necessary in a province that faces significant budget pressure, adding that the nine district health authorities have been told none of the money is to be taken from patient care.

"We have told them that there is not to be any effect on patient care," Dexter said.

"We can move through the system and find ways to customize the services to reduce costs and meet budget targets."

But the chief financial officer for the Capital District Health Authority said it would be impossible to promise there would be no impact on patients if her health board, the province's largest, were to implement the cut.

"We can never promise absolute lack of disruption to our patients, to our staff, services and so on," Amanda Whitewood said. "We'll see how we make out."

Whitewood said the reduction would mean $21 million less for Capital District Health.

She said this budget exercise is different from previous ones in that the province is expecting $46 million in savings to be found across the system.

She said that meant the three per cent cut may not be evenly distributed across health authorities and the IWK Health Centre.

"It may not be three per cent everywhere," Whitewood said. "It may be less in some cases and more in others."

Janet Knox, CEO of the Valley District Health Authority, said the proposed cutback would mean a loss of $3.2 million. Other health officials said the cuts would range from $7.2 million for the Cape Breton Regional Health Authority to $2 million for the Pictou County Health Authority.

Dexter said his government is continuing to improve health care by putting more money into emergency and long-term care programs.

"You're going to continue to see those things roll out across the province as we continue to improve patient care, access to primary care and seek to reduce our costs," he said.

Health Minister Maureen MacDonald said last week that health budgets can no longer continue to grow by seven or eight per cent annually as they have in recent years.

Nova Scotia spends $3.8 billion a year on health care, or about 40 per cent of its total budget. It is the province's largest expenditure.

Liberal health critic Leo Glavine said the premier was being disingenuous by saying front-line health care delivery would not be affected if the cuts take effect.

He pointed to the current fiscal year in which the province simply froze health spending, but expected health authorities to absorb costs for such things as supplies and labour.

"We saw it in full measure in the Annapolis Valley with the closure of the walk-in clinic in Berwick," said Glavine.

Health authorities say a three-month, $98,000 study announced by the province last month could provide an answer on where they can trim spending.

Consultants from Ernst & Young are examining administrative and support services at the health authorities and have been asked to help find savings in 13 areas where costs can be shared.

Health records, human resources, finance and food services are among the areas being studied.