TORONTO - Ontario voters face a real choice this fall between a party that once compared nurses to hula hoops or a government that built hospitals and hired nurses, Health Minister Deb Matthews said Thursday.

Addressing nurses at their annual lobby day at the legislature, Matthews launched into a partisan attack on the Tories for slashing health-care spending during their time in office from 1995 to 2003.

Matthews cut right to the chase, reminding the nurses that former Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris once suggested they were nothing more than a fad.

"It was outrageous what happened to nurses the last time (Conservatives) were in charge, and I just have to remind you: hula hoops," Matthews said as nurses laughed awkwardly.

"Sorry. I had to do it, because the point they were making is sometimes things go out of style and nurses had gone out of style. That sticks with me."

The health minister went on to claim the Tories planned to cut $3 billion from health care if they win the Oct. 6 election because the previous PC leader, John Tory, promised in the 2007 campaign to eliminate the health-care premium.

"They are more interested, make no mistake about it, in cutting taxes than they are in strengthening (health) services, so make sure you decode the platform," warned Matthews.

The government would have to eliminate home care, drug coverage for seniors or close every hospital in northern Ontario if it took $3 billion out of health care, warned Matthews.

"I'm not fear mongering," she insisted.

"I'm saying you can choose to go back to a health-care system that does not meet the needs of the people, or you can stick with the party that has a demonstrated record of improving access to care and bringing down wait times."

The Conservatives accused Matthews of deliberately misleading the nurses, and said new PC Leader Tim Hudak never promised to scrap the health-care premium of up to $900 per worker that Premier Dalton McGuinty introduced in his first term.

"She's clearly lying," said PC critic Sylvia Jones.

The Tories said all options for tax relief are on the table as they prepare their campaign platform, but Hudak promised the nurses a PC government would not reduce health-care spending.

"Front-line spending will increase for health care under our government, in fact, the health budget will increase," Hudak told the nurses.

"It's the right thing to do, but it doesn't mean we're going to spend every penny in the same way."

For example, Hudak says there's too much bureaucracy, so he would shut down regional health networks known as LHINs, saving about $80 million a year, money he would put into front-line services.

But Matthews said Local Health Integration Networks were set up to combine two former levels of bureaucracy into one -- District Health Councils and regional health offices -- and eliminating the LHINS would see all local health care decisions made in Toronto.

Unusually, it was Hudak who was the less partisan in the speeches to the nurses, even going so far as to say McGuinty's "heart is in the right place" even if his policies are wrong.

"I think he means well... but after eight years in government I believe Premier McGuinty has lost touch with what's happening on the front lines in hospitals and long-term care homes."

The nurses asked Hudak about everything from the minimum wage to wind power, suggesting they really don't know where the rookie Tory leader stands, while Matthews faced health care questions exclusively, and received applause for many of her answers.