Nova Scotia Health Minister Leo Glavine says the province doesn't have the funds to meet the key demand by 2,600 registered nurses working in the Capital District Health Authority.
"Our province has limited resources to meet unreasonable expectations," Leo Glavine told reporters in Halifax.
The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union wants nurse-to-patient ratios guaranteed in a collective agreement currently under negotiation.
The Capital District Health Authority — the nurses' employer — said meeting the staff levels proposed by the union would require hiring 800 more registered nurses at an annual cost of more than $60 million.
Nurses have told CBC News they are seeking a ratio of one nurse to every four patients.
Glavine said there have not been complaints patient safety is being compromised by current staffing levels.
"It's a huge ask and we know the state of California went down this road and have now retrenched. I think there's limited information at the moment [that it works]," he said.
The Capital District Health Authority has challenged union claims that more nurses equates to better patient safety. The NSGEU is using the issue as its key public message as bargaining heads into conciliation.
"We don’t have evidence to suggest there are safety concerns related to staffing levels," said John Gillis, spokesperson for the health authority.
"Fixed ratios do not provide the flexibility needed to meet the changing needs of patients. They also fail to consider the skill and experience of staff available, including nurses as well as other types of care providers."
The NSGEU has responded.
"As a union that also represents licensed practical nurses, we are acutely aware of the need to maintain a safe staffing mix," Holly Fraughton, a spokeswoman for the union, told CBC News in an email.
"In actual fact, what we are proposing at the bargaining table are mandated minimum staffing numbers: a plan that guarantees minimum numbers only, but can be adjusted to meet higher patient acuity."
Glavine appears to be leaning towards the Capital District Health Authority's position that it cannot afford mandated nurse to patient ratios.
"To go down that road at the present is one we cannot afford and one Capital Health does not feel is necessary," Glavine said.
Earlier this week, union president Joan Jessome accused Capital Health of trying to scare the public by releasing numbers when bargaining has barely begun.
"There is no contract without mandated ratios," Jessome told CBC News.