TORONTO - Ontario patients will get poorer health care in the wake of 2,000 registered nurses being laid off in the past year as hospitals struggle to balance budgets, the New Democrats said Monday.

"Nurses are being thanked with pink slips in this province," NDP Leader Andrea Horwath told the legislature.

"Patients and their families are seeing their local cancer screening programs disappear; they're seeing less support for the elderly, less support for people with mental health issues.

"How can the minister still claim that these cuts aren't impacting front-line care with statistics like that?"

Health Minister Deb Matthews said there were bound to be changes for nurses as the government moves patients and programs from expensive hospitals to community care, but added many nurses will immediately find work elsewhere in the system.

"That's better care for people, it's more convenient care and it's safer care," said Matthews.

"Some nurses are getting layoff notices, but then they will immediately be hired in a new position at a different hospital."

However, the Ontario Nurses Association said its members were not seeing new jobs created in the community to offset the 2,045 notices sent out in the past 12 months.

"It'd be great to be able to provide these services in the community, (but) the nurses are not there, the supports are not there and right now, as far as trying to provide care in the home, we are scrambling," said association president Linda Haslam-Stroud.

"Moving the less acute patients out into the community means the hospitals are having more acute patients that require the registered nursing skill level, but at the same time they're also slashing our jobs."

Matthews noted there were over 500 registered nursing jobs in Ontario posted online as of Monday.

"There are hundreds of nursing jobs available on the Workoplois website today in Ontario, so there are lots of opportunities for nurses," she said.

Haslam-Stroud said in the past many of those online jobs postings for nurses proved to be false.

The health minister also insisted the 2,045 layoff notices given to nurses in the past year, mainly by hospitals, didn't always translate into a job loss.

"I'd be really careful about what you read into those layoff notices," said Matthews. "They very often don't entail a nurse losing her job; it's most often a transfer of responsibility."

Matthews said there are 10,000 more registered nurses working in Ontario now than when the Liberals were elected in 2003, but Horwath said that "absolutely" not the case.

"That's perhaps what their goal was, but you can't have 10,000 new nurses and at the same time have 2,045 fewer nurses in the span of one year," said Horwath.

"The government is playing fast and loose with the numbers."

Matthews also defended a decision by a government review panel which recommended 121 registered nursing positions be cut in Peterborough.

"The Peterborough Regional hospital has been running a deficit for the last 13 years," she said. "Clearly, that is not the best use of our taxpayers' dollars."

Haslam-Stroud said the situation in Peterborough was playing itself out in hospitals across the province, with nurses being cut to balance the budgets as required by provincial law.