Health service cuts 'unpalatable'
Health service savings already proposed are unpalatable and next year will be even more demanding, minister Jim Wells said.
The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has to find £70 million to break even by April.
Regulators have expressed concern about long waiting times at the Royal Victoria Hospital emergency department in Belfast and campaigners rallied against plans to close small units in counties Down and Antrim recently.
Mr Wells said: "Many of the actions arrived at by (health and social care) trusts are unpalatable and counter-strategic, but unfortunately the Executive has hard realities to face.
"I will continue to assess and monitor the impacts of these proposals to be satisfied they are the least worst solutions available.
"And while at least there will be a little longer to prepare, next year will be even more demanding."
Earlier in November, up to 1,000 people gathered in Ballycastle to protest at the closure of Northern Ireland's only dedicated multiple sclerosis respite unit at Dalriada Hospital.
The MS unit, used by 69 people, will shut at the end of November until March next year as part of cuts to the health service.
Closure of hospital beds will affect mainly the elderly or those who are in transition between hospital and home.
Minor injury units are to close in Armagh, Whiteabbey, Co Antrim, and Bangor, Co Down, while fewer temporary staff are to be used.
It follows the allocation of £80 million by the Executive to the Department of Health for the current financial year, less than had been bid for.
Mr Wells told the DUP's party conference: "Safety and quality must be at the centre of all that the health service does.
"And while savings are unavoidable they cannot be considered unless anchored in safety and clinical consensus.
"Our health and social care system can't do everything, everywhere, and do it optimally. And that's the sad lesson that has been learnt across the water in Mid-Staffs and elsewhere, of striving to sustain small services without sufficient staff to remain safe."
Many patients at Belfast emergency departments are waiting more than 12 hours for treatment, the minister has said.
A concerted effort is still required to make improvements after a major incident was declared at the Royal Victoria last January, he added.
He acknowledged progress in cutting waiting times in other parts of Northern Ireland.