Up to 3,500 elderly people are needlessly stuck in hospitals across England every day, according to MPs.
Some patients can wait over a month to be discharged
A report by the Commons public accounts committee suggests one in three patients can wait more than a month before they are allowed to leave.
While these patients are well enough to be discharged, they are not well enough to go home.
However, the report shows councils are still struggling to find suitable accommodation for these patients.
MPs said the delays cost the NHS around £170m each year and mean that elderly people are taking up valuable beds that could be used by other patients.
The report acknowledges the government has significantly cut the number of delayed discharges since it came to office in 1997.
However, it warns problems persist because many hospitals are still failing to follow guidelines to help them tackle the issue.
MPs said trusts should start planning for the discharge of elderly patients much earlier than at present.
They also called for more cooperation between hospitals, local authorities and primary care trusts, which provide local health services.
They said more could be done to help elderly patients live at home, relieving pressure on local authorities to find them nursing home places.
They also urged ministers to address the shortage of physiotherapists and occupational therapists, who play a key role in deciding when elderly patients are able to be discharged or return home.
"Shortages of these professionals are a cause of discharge delays in many areas," the report said.
MPs said the NHS and local authorities would have to work with private nursing home owners to solve the problem.
TRAPPED IN HOSPITAL
Johanna Power broke her shoulder on August 22. On the 27th, she was declared fit to be discharged.
But she is still in the Homerton Hospital, in east London, three week's later, because of an argument over who should pay for her care.
She told the BBC: "I just feel like I'm taking the place up of someone who's critically ill when I could be in a home or somewhere."
"The independent sector provides most of the care homes and home care services and without their full participation, the NHS is unlikely to reduce delayed discharges significantly," it says.
Conservative MP Edward Leigh, chairman of the committee, said urgent action was needed.
"It is intolerable that on any given day there are 3,500 older people waiting in hospital even though they are fit to be discharged.
"There is an urgent need for the Department of Health, health authorities, trusts and independent providers to work together better to plan care provision."
Health Minister Stephen Ladyman told BBC Radio 4's Today Programme the government was acting to combat the bed blocking problem.
Mr Ladyman said: "Over the last two years we have halved the number of people who are bed blocking, a recoup of 900,000 bed days every year.
"But we as a government have acknowledged that that is not good enough. That is why we have passed the Delayed Discharges Act, which forces local councils to take the issue seriously."
From next year, councils failing to find alternative accommodation for patients well enough to be discharged could face fines.
But Paul Burstow, Liberal Democrat spokesman on older people, said: "Taxpayers' money is wasted on keeping people in hospital or readmitting the elderly to NHS beds, when what they need is good care at home, or a good care home."
The Independent Healthcare Association, representing private nursing homes, said extra money could solve the problem.
"Patients are suffering and money is being wasted on expensive hospital care
because homes are being starved of funds," said spokesman Andrew Fairburn.
"Two homes close every week, and about 12,000 beds have been lost in the last
year, simply through under-funding."
Charities called on the government to address the problem.
Gordon Lishman, director general of Age Concern England said: "An urgent solution must be found to stop delayed discharges and older people get the care they need."
Jonathan Ellis of Help the Aged added: "Despite the overall fall in the number of delayed discharge, it is still the most frail and vulnerable older people who wait the longest for appropriate services."
Shadow Health Secretary Dr Liam Fox said: "Promises that this crisis will be resolved are simply not enough.
"Up and down the country elderly patients are suffering. The government should be ashamed."
Meanwhile, a report by the National Audit Office shows some trusts are doing better than others on introducing checks to ensure patients receive high-quality care.
It found that so-called clinical governance measures varied across the country.
The checks are designed to reduce risks and improve the quality of care given to patients.