Hospitals' sole priority is saving lives and they must stop turning away emergency cases because the victims can't pay their bills, the health ministry has warned. Vice-minister for health Ma Xiaowei said his ministry would strictly implement an accountability system to measure how frontline medical staff meet their responsibility to save patients with emergencies. 'We know overdue and unpaid bills are a commonplace in emergency rooms, but it cannot be an excuse for hospitals to deny the saving of lives,' Mr Ma told an annual health management meeting in Beijing. He suggested that hospitals should strive to secure government support for the problem of unpaid bills. His call came in response to a growing outcry over patients being turned away because they cannot afford a hospital's fees. In November, 2,000 protesters gathered outside a hospital in Guangan, Sichuan after a four-year-old was refused treatment, allegedly because his family could not pay the medical fees, and subsequently died. Two months earlier, 19-year-old Chengdu university student Xiang Tao, who was attacked by gangsters, died after his classmates could not pay a 2,000 yuan deposit for his emergency treatment. However, many hospitals complain they face hundreds of thousands yuan in unpaid bills every year. Yu Baofa, a Shandong delegate to the National People's Congress, said Beijing should make rehabilitation of the medical-care system its most important public-welfare undertaking. 'We medical staff should put saving lives as our first priority,' said Dr Yu, who also owns three private hospitals. 'But who will pay the bills for us? I think our government has a responsibility to bear this.' Dr Yu acknowledged that it was impossible for the government to pay all the bills, but it should support at least to some extent all emergency cases in public and private hospitals. 'Honestly, without government support, all hospitals will be ruined by unpaid bills,' Dr Yu said. The central government had to introduce comprehensive health-care measures to deal with the problem of unpaid bills across the nation, he said. Zhao Zhenghuan , a medical expert in Guangzhou, said the provincial government had given its full support to all emergency cases in all provincial hospitals. 'We are confident that we can achieve the requirement of the central government because we have no economic problems,' Dr Zhao said. 'But I think it would be more difficult for poor areas in eastern and western regions of our country.' During last month's National People's Congress in Beijing, Sars hero Zhong Nanshan helped the launch the national debate on health reform by calling on key medical organisations to train frontline staff in rural areas. 'I totally agree that we have only few qualified doctors who really take patients' lives seriously in our country,' Dr Zhong said.