05/13/2015 09:21 EDT | Updated 05/13/2016 05:59 EDT

Nova Scotia's long-term care system unsustainable without change:deputy minister

HALIFAX - Building more long-term care beds is not the answer for an unsustainable system strained by a rapidly aging population, says Nova Scotia's deputy health minister.

Peter Vaughan told the legislature's public accounts committee on Wednesday that the provincial government currently spends more than $800 million on continuing care services, about 20 per cent of the overall health budget.

Vaughan said if costs continue to rise, long-term help could become even harder to access for seniors, who comprise 17 per cent of the province's population.

"If we continue to focus on that one area alone then we have a sustainability problem going forward with our aging baby-boomer population," said Vaughan.

With nearly 8,000 beds in the province Vaughan told the committee there are 2,126 people on the waiting list, including 1,940 waiting at home and 186 in hospital.

Vaughan said the average wait for a long-term care bed is nine months with actual waits of anywhere from 30 days to one year.

He said there is a need to expand care at home in order to reduce reliance on long-term care in a province that has the highest number of long-term care beds per capita.

"We know people with access to care and services when needed can stay in their homes longer," said Vaughan. "Our services must be designed to help them do exactly that."

Vaughan said there are plans to build an additional 79 beds this fiscal year, but he later told reporters that there were no plans to add more in the immediate future.

NDP Leader Maureen MacDonald said the beds were actually announced by the former NDP government prior to the 2013 election campaign and the government's inactivity in adding more really amounts to a moratorium.

"We'll have a cost at some point," she said. "The numbers of seniors don't go away."

Gary MacLeod, of Advocates for Care of the Elderly, said while no one wants to go to a nursing home, many people eventually go because of deteriorating health, so more beds are needed.

MacLeod said the government also doesn't seem to be accounting for the toll on caregivers. He said statistics show that about 62 per cent of caregivers eventually end up needing health care services.

"It's nice to think that you can stay in your own home forever, but you can't, it's as simple as that," he said.

Vaughan said a new long-term care strategy won't be ready until 2017.