Hong Kong people may have to start paying for accident and emergency services as early as next month as the Hospital Authority launches an historic attempt to ease its budget deficit. The cost would range from $80 to $120, ending the decades-old practice of minimal fees for medical services. The Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food, Yeoh Eng-kiong, said a decision on other fees would be made after April 1, when a freeze on public charges is lifted. 'Based on previous surveys, the public will accept charges for the accident and emergency services of $80 to $120. The charge could be imposed next month at the earliest,' Dr Yeoh said. At present accident and emergency services are free in all public hospitals. In-patient treatment, which is 98 per cent subsidised, is $68 a day. Ninety-three per cent of all in-patients opt for public hospital treatment. Dr Yeoh said income would be kept for the authority, which recorded a $225 million budget deficit last financial year. That could hit $580 million this year. 'The fees received by the Hospital Authority do not go to the Treasury. The authority is an independent statutory body, so its income should belong to it,' he said. Patients' groups urged the government to waive charges or give discounts for the elderly or poor. The director of clinical services at the private Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital warned fees at public hospitals should not be raised in a 'piecemeal' manner. Dr Kwong Kwok-hay said making public fees higher could push patients back to the private market. Better-off patients should pay in full, while the needy should get free treatment, he said.