Ontario Deputy Premier Christine Elliott talks with journalists following Question Period at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto on Wednesday, August 1, 2018.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Ontario’s new government will uphold a promise to address hospital overcrowding but any action taken must have fiscal restraint in mind, the province’s health minister said Thursday.

In her first major speech since the Progressive Conservatives were elected this spring, Christine Elliott said the government must tackle the problem, but noted that Ontario faces “difficult financial times” and the health-care sector will have to find ways to operate more efficiently.

“I am convinced the solution lies in system transformation, and building health-care delivery for the future,” Elliott said at a gathering of health-care executives organized by the Ontario Hospital Association. “Only a system-wide lens will help us plan successfully for how we will care for generations to come.”

Elliott, who previously served as Ontario’s patient ombudsman, said the government is mindful it was elected with a mandate of fiscal responsibility.

“That means we are going to have to be innovative,” she said.

Ontario’s hospitals have been struggling with overcrowding issues for several years with staff sometimes forced to treat patients in areas like hallways or storage closets.

Elliott called that “unacceptable.”

“That is no way to treat our loved ones,” she said. “We have a big challenge ahead of us.”

Her comments come days after Ontario accepted the report of a commission of inquiry looking at the previous government’s spending. That report has not yet been made public but Finance Minister Vic Fedeli has said its findings will help the government determine the extent of the province’s fiscal situation and the levels of deficit and debt.

Premier Doug Ford has promised to create 15,000 long-term care beds within five years, and 30,000 over the next 10 years to relieve pressure on hospitals. Elliott repeated that promise Thursday, saying that growing capacity is part of the solution.

“We know the wait list is too long for a bed in a Long Term Care home, and that creates added pressures for you,” she told her audience, adding that she wanted them to share their ideas on improving the health-care system. “In the coming months we are going to discuss those ideas, we are going to find the right solutions.”

The Ontario Hospital Assocaition said it was committed to working with the government and other partners to build a more effective health-care system.

“Building a sustainable and efficient health care system requires us to substantially rethink the status quo, develop new models and approaches to care and push for greater integration,” it said.

NDP health critic France Gelinas, however, called Elliott’s remarks a signal of looming cuts and privatization.

“You can’t cut your way to better health care,” Gelinas said in a statement. “Today’s speech by Ford’s health minister is chilling, and signals that even more funding cuts are on the way.”

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner echoed those remarks.

“I am concerned that when anyone from this government talks about ’efficiencies’, it is code for cutbacks,” he said in a statement. “It’s troubling that this government is now putting an asterisk next to its promise to end hallway medicine.”

Schreiner said the government needs to invest in measures like more community health centres, nurse practitioner-led clinics, and family health teams.

“I appreciate the minister’s comments about transforming our health care system with an eye to the future,” he said. “By this, I hope she means investing in preventative approaches rather than expensive band-aids.”

The Ontario Health Coalition, which advocates for publicly funded care, said Elliott’s comments raise red flags.

“We would remind the minister they were elected to end hallway medicine and that does not mean cuts and privatization for which this government has no mandate whatsoever,” said executive director Natalie Mehra.

“As much as we’d all like to get more for less, you really can’t resolve the hospital hallway crisis without actually re-opening the closed floors, and wards and beds in hospitals and restoring those services.”