HALIFAX -- The Nova Scotia government says it will create new nursing home beds and upgrade 17 seniors facilities, as the condition of the homes is shaping up to be an election issue.

In an announcement Friday, Premier Iain Rankin pledged a total of $96.5 million for 264 new beds in the province's central zone and to replace and upgrade 1,298 beds at 14 existing nursing homes and three residential-care facilities around the province.

Health Minister Zach Churchill told reporters that in some cases, buildings will be replaced "if that's deemed the most efficient and economical way to proceed, or it could be a major renovation or retrofit."

The first project is expected to be complete by 2026-27, with the Health Department projecting a reduction in average wait times across the province to two months, down from the current five to six months.

Rankin, who appears poised to call a summer election, made the announcement at the Victoria Haven Nursing Home in Glace Bay, N.S., saying it will bring total spending in the sector to over $1 billion in the 2021-22 fiscal year.

"It's a budget we've committed to because we believe we must do better for those who live and work in long-term care facilities," he said. The tenders for building the new beds are expected to go out in August and construction should begin within two years, Rankin added.

The Liberal government has faced years of criticism from opposition parties for neglecting the state of the province's 133 long-term care facilities.

A review published last September into 53 deaths at the Northwood facility in Halifax during the pandemic's first wave concluded shared rooms and staffing shortages were among the key factors contributing to the outbreaks and spread of COVID-19. There have been a total of 93 deaths in the province from COVID-19 to date.

The government's news release states the upgrades will create single rooms with their own bathrooms and include heightened infection-control measures in the facilities. The province says almost $65 million will go toward replacing beds, making repairs and renovating the 17 existing facilities, while close to $30 million will go toward adding new beds in the central zone, which includes the Halifax area.

In addition, funds will be spent purchasing a bed-vacancy management system and to assess facilities that are more than 25 years old, while $792,000 will be used to hire nine employees to oversee the projects.

Friday's promise comes on top of an announcement in January of 236 new beds and the replacement or renovation of seven long-term care facilities. In 2019-20, the province announced 197 new nursing-home beds for New Waterford, North Sydney, Eskasoni, Meteghan, Mahone Bay and Halifax.

Long-term care is likely to be among the issues in the upcoming election campaign, with both opposition parties having already criticized the Liberals for neglecting the file. Nova Scotia has one of the oldest populations in the country and faces what's been referred to as a tsunami of dementia and other chronic illnesses.

The Opposition Tories released a $634-million plan last August, saying they would swiftly add 2,500 single-bed rooms to the system, hire 2,000 nurses and continuing care assistants and fund a new option for incremental-supportive living if the party forms government.

Leader Tim Houston has said he's also submitted a proposal to the federal government seeking Ottawa's support for a further 1,000 single-bed rooms.

The NDP has tried to introduce legislation that would require all residents of long-term care homes to have a room and washroom of their own, and have called for all new capital funding for long-term care to go to public or not-for-profit facilities.

The New Democrats have also repeatedly called for a full public inquiry into long-term care and for the creation of legislative provisions that would impose staffing ratios to ensure better care for residents.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 9, 2021.