Health Minister Victor Boudreau says the pressure put on hospitals by large numbers of medically discharged patients taking up beds may be alleviated through the Liberal government’s strategic program review.

The health minister’s comments on Wednesday came the day after Dr. Ben Hoyt, the chief surgeon at the Dr. Everett Chalmers Hospital in Fredericton, said too many surgeries are being cancelled because patients who should be in alternate care, such as nursing homes, are taking up hospital beds.

Boudreau said Hoyt raises some valid concerns about the number of patients who are taking up beds when they no longer need to be in a hospital.

“It is a problem that has been around for many years and it is not a problem that is going to disappear in the next couple of weeks,” Boudreau said.

“It is a challenge.”

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Dr. Ben Hoyt, the chief of surgery at the Dr. Everett Chalmers Hospital, raised concerns about the number of surgeries that are being cancelled because too many beds are being taken up by patients who don't need to be in the hospital. (Catherine Harrop / CBC)

Hoyt said there are about 300 patients in Horizon Health Network hospitals who are taking up hospital beds even though they have been medically discharged.

In Fredericton, Hoyt said there were 92 patients at the Dr. Everett Chalmers Hospital on Monday, accounting for 29 per cent of the hospital's 315 beds.

He said four surgeries had to be cancelled because there weren't any beds for those patients. Hoyt said more than 33 elective surgeries have been cancelled since September for similar reasons.

The health minister said steps have been taken to help hospitals deal with these patients.

Since 2007, Boudreau said 90 new nursing homes have been built, another 30 beds are being planned and 193 specialized care beds in the Fredericton area.

There have been other attempts to ramp up other programs, such as home care.

Program review will examine problem

Boudreau said the departments of health and social development are aware of the acuity of the problem.

But he said possible long-term solutions for this ongoing problem may be uncovered by the strategic program review.

The Liberal government announced Michael Horgan, a retired federal civil servant, will be the chair of the advisory committee. Boudreau, meanwhile, is the minister responsible for the program review.

The initiative is intended to save at least $250 million annually starting in the 2016-17 fiscal year. Boudreau told reporters on Tuesday the provincial government’s structural deficit is now being estimated at more than $400 million, which will put more pressure on the program review to find savings.

The health minister said the program review will look at issues, such as the hospital bed crunch, to see if improvements can be made.

He pointed out that New Brunswick is the only province where long-term care programs, such as nursing homes, fall outside the responsibility of the Department of Health. Instead, the Department of Social Development is the lead department for nursing home and special care home policies.

He said that could be reviewed, along with policies about whether families should be able to turn down the first nursing home spot they're offered and the maximum distance a senior can be placed from their home.

No decisions have been made in the program review process, but Boudreau said the provincial government is open to examining all options.

“This is a prime example of where strategic program review is going to look at the way government does things and try to find improvements and at the same time try to find efficiencies in the system,” he said.