Nova Scotia Health Minister Maureen MacDonald says health budgets can't continue to grow as they have in recent years. (CBC)

Nova Scotia has asked its nine district health authorities and the IWK Health Centre in Halifax to cut spending in the next fiscal year by three per cent, a move that opponents said would add stress to the province's health care system.

Health Minister Maureen MacDonald said Friday that health budgets can no longer continue to grow by seven or eight per cent a year as they have in recent years, and so she is requesting they reduce their expenditures in 2012-2013.

"The health care system could be jeopardized if we allow that to continue," MacDonald said in an interview.

Nova Scotia spends $3.8 billion a year on health care, or about 40 per cent of its total budget -- its largest expenditure. The proposed spending cut comes as the province works to rein in a projected deficit this year of $319 million.

MacDonald said the health boards and the IWK have been asked to protect vital programs such as patient care and mental health and addiction services, as well as look for savings in non-essential areas.

"We do need to make sure that the dollars we're spending are being spent as effectively as possible and that we're identifying any waste in the system," she said.

Kyle Buott of the Nova Scotia Citizens' Health Care Network said he believes patient care will undoubtedly suffer if money is taken out of the system.

"It's really simple: you can't cut your way to better care sooner, which is the government's plan around this," said Buott, whose group represents thousands of people in health care, community and labour groups.

"If we don't make investments in public health care, we're going to see increases in wait times. We're going to see health care workers leave the province, and we're going to see patient care suffer."

The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union said it was also concerned about the impact on workers and the delivery of services.

Union president Joan Jessome said programs and positions were cut last year without an increase to the budget.

"I am in favour of finding efficiencies but not at the expense of health care services and programs to the public, and not at the expense of healthy workplaces for our members," Jessome said in a statement.

The union represents some 12,000 health care workers in the province's nine district health authorities and the IWK.

Jessome said the union plans to meet with its members and employers to develop a response to the government's announcement.

MacDonald said the boards have done a great job of protecting patient care and she's optimistic they will continue to do so.

Similarly, school boards in the province were told last August to do a budget planning exercise with a 22 per cent cut, or $197 million, in provincial funding over three years.

However, the government later announced a 1.65 per cent reduction for this fiscal year after outcry from teachers and parents.

Tory health critic Chris d'Entremont questioned the government's priorities Friday, saying patients and families will suffer in the wake of cuts.

"It caused turmoil in our schools last year and will cause turmoil in our hospitals now," d'Entremont said in a statement.