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By law, Ontario hospitals are forbidden from carrying deficits, which is forcing some to balance their books by making cuts.

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Health Minister David Caplan said the province has put more money each year towards health care since the Liberals took office in 2003, and direct funding for hospitals has jumped 31 per cent under their watch.

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"The hospitals have been chopping to do everything they can to balance their budgets, but the low hanging fruit is gone and the efficiencies have all but disappeared."

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The majority of the province's 159 public hospitals are facing "serious financial challenges" and are looking at deficits, OHA president and CEO Tom Closson said in a recent interview.

"This year is bad," said Natalie Mehra, director of the Ontario Health Coalition.

"This is the biggest round of health restructuring and cuts that we've seen since the Harris era cuts. There's no question of that. Next year will be worse at the currently forecasted budget levels."

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in 2004, a move they argued was necessary to combat a $5.6 billion deficit they inherited from the previous Tory government.

In his fall economic statement, Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said the province would not touch health care or education budgets, but delayed the hiring of 9,000 nurses and 50 family health teams, and also deferred some school repairs.

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2.4 per cent this year and 2.1 per cent next year aren't enough for hospitals to meet rising costs while trying to meet the demands of an aging population, Witmer said.

"What is different today, however, is that we are the midst of a worldwide economic crisis and I think that Ontarians understand that we will have to work within our means."

Other hospitals have already unveiled plans to cut jobs, including nurses, and close beds to avoid the red ink, which is putting patient care at risk, said Progressive Conservative critic Elizabeth Witmer.

The group will release a report Tuesday detailing the cuts made at 75 hospitals to avoid illegal deficits, she said.

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Small town emergency rooms in southwestern Ontario such as Petrolia, Leamington and Wallaceburg are also under review, Mehra said.

"I Nike Air Max 90 Mid Winter Gym Red don't think you could ever tell me a time when hospitals, when people in health care have said that they've had enough resources, and I think that's very true," he said Monday.

Some hospital boards are considering proposals that would effectively close small and rural hospitals, a move not seen since the Harris years, Mehra said.

"We have a health system that seems to be going from one crisis to the other," said Witmer, who served as health minister in Harris's cabinet.

It's still unclear how many hospitals are facing deficits. Government statistics show that 52 hospitals were in the red at the end of September, but the Ontario Hospital Association hinted there could be more.

With Ontario now facing a $500 million deficit prompted by a global economic downturn, Caplan offered little hope that hospitals might receive some extra cash.

"The fixed costs of salaries and hydro and heat are going up four to five per cent," she said.

Some of that cash comes from the province's health tax, which brings in about $3 billion a year.

TORONTO Ontario hospitals are entering an era of drastic cost cutting not seen since the slash and burn days of former Conservative premier Mike Harris, and the province is doing little to stop it, critics warned Monday.

Closson wouldn't provide a specific number, but said the OHA is looking into the problem over the next few weeks to determine how bad things are and the extent to which some hospitals will have to reduce services.

Officials in Quinte have said they're looking at closing a hospital in order to balance their budget, while communities like Port Colborne and Fort Erie are considering proposals to turn their hospitals into clinics, she said.

"Whether it's emergency rooms, not enough family doctors, we don't have enough home care, we have 24,000 people who need a long term care bed. We simply don't have a plan that is helping us to move forward in a co ordinated fashion that's going to meet the needs of Ontarians."

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