BED-blocking is at its highest rate in four years, with most of those affected being delayed by a shortage of available care home places or because they were awaiting funding to pay for a care home placement.

Figures reveal the number of patients in Scotland waiting more than six weeks to be discharged has tripled over the past year.

A total of 274 had waited more than four weeks to be discharged from hospital in July, up from 118 a year ago. It included 175 patients who waited more than six weeks to be discharged, against 59 the previous July.

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It comes as the Scottish Government prepares to cut its bed-blocking target again next April, when no patient will be expected to wait longer than two weeks to be discharged.

The Government said it had set up a task force with the Convention Of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) to tackle the problem and make "immediate improvements".

Health Secretary Alex Neil said: "We have come a considerable way in tackling this problem, with comparable figures for 2006 showing three times as many people were delayed for more than four weeks. However, it is disappointing some patients are still delayed for lengthy periods in our hospitals."

Councillor Peter Johnston, Cosla's health spokesman, said: "This is a priority of the first order - we know that for older people, in particular, a delay of longer than 72 hours can have an impact on their health and wellbeing.

"We in Cosla are determined to make further progress on discharge arrangements. We hope to get to a position where service redesign can build community capacity to ensure people are only admitted to hospital because they really need to be there and are then discharged speedily back to their homes."

Between April and June there were 894 people fit to leave hospital, but with nowhere else to go, resulting in nearly 150,000 bed days being lost to bed-blocking.

There were also 308 "Code 9" patients - those with complex needs - including 46 who had been stuck in hospital for six months or more. Eight of those have been waiting more than a year to be discharged to another setting.

Jackson Carlaw, the Scottish Conservatives' health spokesman and deputy leader, said: "The problem of delayed discharge just gets worse and worse."

Jim Hume , health spokesman for the Scottish LibDems, said: "The vast majority of these patients are over 75 and many are awaiting a care home place in their community."

Meanwhile, the figures from Information Services Division Scotland also revealed only one of the country's 14 health boards is consistently meeting accident and emergency waiting time targets.

National standards state at least 98% of people in A&E should be admitted, transferred for treatment or discharged from hospital within four hours. Only NHS Tayside achieved this target every month from April to June.

Earlier this month, The Herald's Time For Action campaign on NHS care found patients with long-term health problems are waiting months for rehabilitation services to help them live independently. The report found delays existed of up to 36 weeks before people received a visit from trained staff.