10/02/2013 10:22 EDT | Updated 12/02/2013 05:12 EST

Nova Scotia NDP says health care main ballot box question in Tuesday's election

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter is attempting to frame Tuesday's provincial election as a choice between competing visions for the province's health care system, saying it is the main issue facing voters.

Dexter returned to the familiar theme Wednesday in Halifax, attacking the Liberal plan to reduce administration by cutting the number of district health authorities from 10 to two.

"It is, I believe, the fundamental question to be answered on Oct. 8," the NDP premier said.

Throughout the campaign, Dexter has said the Liberal plan would create chaos and result in a "super bureaucracy" that would only centralize decisions and drive up costs. The Liberals say the $13 million they would save by cutting the health boards would be put back into frontline patient care.

Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil dismissed Dexter's ballot box assertion, saying he believes voters will make their choice based on who they can trust to carry out their platform promises.

He said with anticipated changes to the federal funding formula for health care in 2015, there won't be as much money available for patient services, making the need to find efficiencies within the health system all the more important.

"We can continue to do the same thing we've been doing or we can do what would be prudent, which is eliminate administration and focus our financial resources on frontline health care," said McNeil.

He said it makes no sense to have nine districts overseen by chief executives getting paid high salaries to administer health for a province with a population of about 941,000.

The Progressive Conservatives are also promising to cut the number of health districts, saying only three are needed. Party Leader Jaime Baillie has said the move would save $60 million when combined with the implementation of all the recommendations contained in a February 2012 report by consulting firm Ernst & Young.

The report outlined measures it said would save the health system money, including recommending shared services for payroll, human resources and laundry.

Baillie also said he believed Dexter was misreading the electorate, adding that while health care is important, it's jobs and the economy that are foremost on the minds of voters.

As for the importance of cutting health districts, Baillie said his party simply sees things differently from the NDP. He also rejected Dexter's assertion that adopting all of the Ernst & Young recommendations would lead to job layoffs.

"I don't buy that," said Baillie. "Overall we'll have more jobs in the areas we need on our front lines like emergency rooms and hospitals."

Earlier in the campaign, the NDP announced it would continue its efforts to rein in administration through further cuts — between $6 million and $8 million by the end of 2017.

The party said the promise would bring administration spending down from 4.83 per cent of the overall health budget to four per cent. The Canadian average stands at 4.7 per cent, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

The institute's figures show that the province has been steadily reducing administrative health spending since 2007-08, when it stood at 6.26 per cent of the health budget.