The Miramichi Regional Hospital could be on shaky legal ground after dropping 500 people from the physiotherapy wait list, says a legal expert.

The hospital sent a letter to the patients in December, urging them to seek private care because the waiting list was so long, they would never get served.

But Ian Peach, the dean of law at the University of New Brunswick, said physiotherapy falls under hospital services, according to the Canada Health Act. And by law, he said, those services must be universal and accessible.

So, if a province cuts off patients, the federal government could cut off some funds to the province.

"The federal government, I think, would have the right to reduce the transfer to the province for this," said Peach.

"So to avoid this, the province might want to pony up a little money to make sure that those 500 people do have some chance of getting service in some way in a reasonable amount of time."

Temporary fix proposed

si-nb-bill-fraser-220

Liberal MLA Bill Fraser says the funding for a vacant physiotherapist position should be used to send patients for private treatment. (CBC)

Department of Health officials have said the necessary funding is in place and that it's a "human resources and recruitment issue" for Horizon Health Network.

Liberal MLA Bill Fraser, who represents Miramichi-Bay du Vin, says he has suggested a temporary fix to Health Minister Ted Flemming.

"He said, 'The money's in the system.' So I said, 'Why not take some of that money, and send these people to the private physiotherapists around the Miramichi region, and use the dollars that were allocated for that position?'" said Fraser.

Hospital officials have said even if the hospital was fully staffed, it would be hard-pressed to deal with the wait list, which has been growing over the past four or five years.

But Fraser says the minister wasn't interested in anything that would cost more.

Department of Health officials declined a request for an interview on Monday.