High cost of parking a barrier to hospital services?

Does the high cost of hospital parking deter the public from accessing health services?

In 2006 we sought the answer to this question through a Vector Poll.

Over half of those surveyed in Ontario – 55 per cent – said the high cost of parking would deter low-income people from getting the health services they need. Another four per cent said it would depend on circumstances.

When the survey was broken out by income, that response climbed to 74 per cent among those earning less than $30,000 per year.

For those accessing regular services at their local hospital, this can add up to a significant amount, particularly for those on fixed incomes. We recently calculated that a rise in parking charges at Rouge Valley Health System would cost weekly users a total of $800 per year. For cancer patients attending three times per week, that would mean $2,400 per year.

One local community approached their local hospital and the Local Health Integration Network to complain about this access barrier in the wake of increased charges. Both the LHIN and the hospital pointed fingers at each other, the LHIN saying such charges were up to the hospital, the hospital charging the LHIN forced the hospital to increase its “own-source” revenues. Doing their own research, they told OPSEU that only four hospitals are left in the province that offer free parking.

Pushing hospitals to raise the rate of parking and other own-source revenues is not new. The province’s annual hospital planning submission guide always suggested raising revenues in the event of a funding shortfall. Parking was always on the list.

With hospitals continuing to see less funding for their core budgets, it is no surprise to see them picking away at more user-pay options allowed them under the Canada Health Act.

The question is, where do you draw the line? It appears hospitals are indifferent to market rates in their communities. In many small towns the only pay parking is at the hospital.

It is clear that these charges are no longer restricted to the costs of maintaining the parking facilities.

One municipality thinking aloud suggested making parking charges tax deductible, a cumbersome method that would only benefit those who pay taxes. If it is going to be tax supported, why not filter out all the steps in between?

Ironically, hospitals have used their own high-parking charges to justify cuts to services. At one hospital they suggested the closure of their outpatient lab would be welcomed by users who would no longer have to pay the hefty hospital parking fees by attending private lab collection facilities in the community.

So what is the solution? If Toronto’s University Avenue hospitals made parking free, everybody would park there, from Blue Jays fans to those ducking out of the cost of parking underneath City Hall.

In some local communities citizens have learned how to game the parking lot, taking a new tag before they return to the vehicle, often in lots where the first half hour is free.

Some hospitals have offered discount rates for patients or those who have family in their care. This appears to make some sense in high traffic areas, although there is some concern hospitals desperate for revenue may be moving away from this.

Perhaps it’s time the LHINs, the Ministry and the hospitals stop pointing fingers at each other and start to address this question in a constructive manner.

Five years ago Ontarians said this was a legitimate barrier to health care we all pay for. When Rouge Valley raises the parking fees from $8 to $16 for patients in their cardiac and cancer programs, it is clearly only getting worse.

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