TORONTO - Ontario's Liberal government wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on another level of bureaucracy instead of addressing the growing shortage of long-term care beds, the Opposition charged Thursday.

The government's $1.1-billion Aging at Home strategy has been a dismal failure since administration of the program was taken over by 14 Local Health Integration Networks that the Liberals set up, said Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak.

"Clearly the LHINs have bungled the Aging at Home program," said Hudak.

"Despite putting a quarter of a billion dollars (to date) into the strategy, we’ve actually gone backwards with wait lists for long-term care homes increasing by over 4,000 people and waits for emergency rooms well in excess of provincial standards."

There are now about 24,000 people in Ontario waiting for a long-term care bed. Critics say the lack of adequate home care means more patients wait in hospital for a long-term care bed, which backs up the entire system all the way to the emergency room.

Health Minister Deb Matthews defended the Aging at Home program, and said the government had opened more than 8,000 long-term care beds since it was first elected in 2003, and has plans to open another 1,500 over the next few years.

"We continue to fund local initiatives aimed at keeping people in the comfort of their own home," said Matthews.

"The strategy provides seniors with simple supports like rides to medical appointments, help with household chores and home care. With their on-the-ground knowledge and expertise, the Local Health Integration Networks identify and plan these invaluable programs for their communities."

The Liberals "wasted $200 million to date" on the networks, said Hudak, who called local health networks a convenient screen for the government that the Tories would abolish.

"We would get rid of these regional health bureaucracies, these expensive layers of middle management that serve simply as a veil for (Premier) Dalton McGuinty to hide behind whenever he wants to lay off nurses or close emergency rooms," said Hudak.

"The last thing we need is this bloated health care bureaucracy."

The New Democrats want the government to follow the lead of other provinces and scrap competitive bidding for home care contracts, which they said allowed giant U.S. chains to outbid local providers like the Victorian Order of Nurses.

The problem, said NDP health critic France Gelinas, is the large companies provide very low wages and poor working conditions, leading to a steady turnover in the staff that provide very personal care for the elderly.

"In Sudbury, we had VON nurses for decades, career home care workers ... but VON got outbid by a big American chain who promised the moon," said Gelinas.

"It was as if they were going to clone Mother Theresa the care would be so good, but in reality it is a never-ending change in workers who don’t show up and who move on as soon as they can get a better paying job."

Without adequate home care programs, there will be more and more pressure on the limited long-term care beds available, said Gelinas.

"Our hospitals are full of people waiting for long-term care beds," she said.

The Local Health Integration Networks are appointed by the Liberals and can't be expected to demand the government change its policy to abandon competitive bidding for home care services, added Gelinas.