The Hospital Authority should not use its budgetary problems as an excuse to increase public hospital charges, sack staff or cut wages, legislators said yesterday. At a Legco health services panel meeting, most lawmakers said the authority's deficit was insignificant and would not affect its ability to provide quality health care. The authority recorded a $200 million budget deficit last year, which is projected to rise to $580 million this financial year. 'The authority's deficit is not that big or serious, it is only a problem of how to redistribute resources,' Democrat Yeung Sum said. 'Don't you dare use it as an excuse to raise medical charges.' He said Hong Kong should be proud of its health system, which did not turn the needy away. The authority has said that although the deficit will not increase pressure to change medical charges at public hospitals, a fee of $150 to $200 for using the emergency room service could be introduced in September. Mr Yeung's colleague, Law Chi-kwong, said this year's predicted deficit - which amounts to 1.9 per cent of the authority's annual spending - was enormous. However, he said it would be offset by the body's promise to cut two per cent of expenditure under its productivity enhancement programme. Both Chan Yuen-han, of the Federation of Trade Unions, and Li Fung-ying, of the Federation of Hong Kong and Kowloon Labour Unions, warned officials not to cut wages. Panel chairman Dr Lo Wing-lok said the Government should not monopolise health care but give a greater share of the market to private doctors. The authority has been criticised for squeezing out private doctors because of its cheaper and more extensive services. Dr Ko Wing-man, director (Professional Services and Public Affairs) of the authority, said the rise in spending was due to an increased demand for medical services. He said the deficit would be covered by streamlining the authority's structure, adding it would not affect service quality. Dr Ko was angered by suggestions that increased public health services had been damaging to private doctors. 'It is ironic that our improvement in services was considered a sin in recent years [because it cost money],' he said. But Dr Lo, who represents the medical sector in Legco, said he had never asked public hospitals to reduce services to give private doctors more business.