The DUP has been accused of exploiting the fears of ill, elderly and vulnerable people as the Executive impasse over welfare reform intensifies.
Sinn Fein and the SDLP rounded on Health Minister Edwin Poots after he warned budget cuts resulting from the failure to implement welfare changes could compromise the safety and quality of services to patients.
The DUP minister sounded alarm bells the day after his party colleague and Finance Minister Simon Hamilton said fines imposed by the Treasury could mean a £68.2m reduction in health spending.
Yesterday Mr Poots attempted to ratchet up the pressure on Sinn Fein – which has blocked implementation of the benefits upheaval – by graphically warning that the impact of Treasury fines over four years would make it difficult to deliver on Executive aims and promises.
"The prospect of a budget reduction of some £68m to address central pressures is therefore simply untenable, as this will directly manifest itself in a reduced level of services provided to patients and clients and would mean the population of Northern Ireland will not be able to access the same level of health and social care compared to the rest of the UK," he said.
Mr Poots insisted that in the last three years his Department of Health had delivered savings totalling £490m.
Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey, who chairs the Stormont committee overseeing the benefits shake-up, said the London Government had yet to fully respond to the higher levels of need in the province, which it recognised.
"I think it is a shameful exploitation of some of our most vulnerable people and a huge blunder on the part of the DUP, who are only attempting to mask their failures both to stand up to the British Government and in terms of managing the health service," he said.
And SDLP health spokesperson Fearghal McKinney added: "The minister is choosing to use the vulnerable people of Northern Ireland to make an argument around their failed negotiations; the DUP should hang their heads in shame."