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Hospital parking headache

Hidden 'user fee' or necessary burden? Facilities struggle with balancing patient care, public pocketbook

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/1/2016 (564 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A loved one is in hospital, and you are worried about their well-being. You spend your time juggling household and work tasks with trips to their bedside. Adding to your stress — depending on your income level — is the high cost of parking. 

At some of Winnipeg’s larger hospitals, it’s easy to rack up $20 or more in parking charges each day. Spending a few hours visiting during the day and coming back for a few more hours at night can be a drain on the pocketbook.

Some Canadian health professionals have described hospital parking charges as a medical "user fee," while others worry high parking costs curb visits by loved ones that can help patients recover more quickly.

Earlier this month, the provincial Liberal government in Ontario announced plans to clamp down on escalating hospital parking fees. It ordered hospitals to freeze rates for three years and declared, as of Oct. 1, any institution that charges more than $10 a day for parking will be required to provide multi-day passes at 50 per cent of the daily rate.

"Parking fees should never be a barrier for patients when they go to the hospital," Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins said in a statement. "By making parking more affordable for patients and their loved ones who visit the hospital often, we are helping to reduce the burden of parking fees and putting patients first."

In Winnipeg, some hospitals offer weekly parking passes at costs ranging from $35 to more than $50; monthly passes are also available for frequent users at some institutions. But these options are not well-publicized, patients and visitors complain.


Winnipeg hospital parking rates

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Monica Giesbrecht, a local landscape architect, has had occasion to visit loved ones several times in hospital over the past year.

"My mother-in-law was in for open-heart surgery at St. Boniface this month," she said. "I think we were there for three hours, and when we left, we were laughing because the bill was $13. Thirteen dollars for three hours. Hmmm... "

While the cost was not a burden for her family, she said it could be for many others. She was unaware St. Boniface Hospital sells weekly passes for $52.50. "I had no idea. We read signage pretty carefully, and we never saw it posted anywhere," Giesbrecht said.

Entrance to  the William multi-level parkade near the Heath Sciences Centre, which took in $8.8 million in visitor and staff parking fees last year.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Entrance to the William multi-level parkade near the Heath Sciences Centre, which took in $8.8 million in visitor and staff parking fees last year.

Ontario’s move has Manitoba’s NDP government — facing an election in April — wondering whether it should also take action.

"We really seriously want to review the whole issue," Ron Lemieux, minister responsible for consumer protection, said in an interview this week.

"Our government takes the financial burden of illness seriously," he said. "And while we believe rates in Winnipeg are competitive... we really want to be reviewing the whole issue in light of Ontario’s announcement to ensure Manitoba patients and families are protected from exorbitant fees."

In Ontario, where the issue appears to be more controversial than in Manitoba, hospital parking revenues are estimated at $100 million annually. An article for the online publication healthydebate.ca reported the Ottawa Hospital brought in $17.3 million from parking in 2013-14, earning a profit of $12.6 million once some $4.7 million in expenses were deducted.

The hospital said it used the surplus to purchase medical equipment.
In Winnipeg, hospital parking lots and parkades operate on a break-even basis, according to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority — although fees at some institutions are similar to those at commercial enterprises.

Individual hospitals or their agencies determine the on-site parking rates. They don’t set the rate for parking on neighbouring streets.

Parking rates vary greatly between Winnipeg hospitals. That’s mainly due to the type of parking on offer — in suburban areas, such as at Victoria and Concordia hospitals, there is often cheaper surface parking, while downtown hospitals rely more on parkades and underground garages.
Glenn McLennan, vice-president and chief financial officer for the WRHA, said parking fees are not big revenue generators for city hospitals.

"Basically, it’s operated on a break-even basis," he said of the hospitals under WRHA control.
Hospitals are not specifically directed to operate their lots on a cost-recovery basis; it’s more "a strategy approach," he said.

'We really seriously want to review the whole issue': Ron Lemieux, minister responsible for consumer protection.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

'We really seriously want to review the whole issue': Ron Lemieux, minister responsible for consumer protection.

Health Sciences Centre took in $8.8 million in visitor and staff parking fees last year, but McLennan said the money was used to cover parkade construction costs and financing charges, facility maintenance and operating costs.

"(The facilities are) very expensive operations to maintain," he said.

The Free Press was able to obtain revenue figures for all Winnipeg hospitals with the exception of St. Boniface Hospital, which sports some of the highest hospital parking rates in the city. 

Parking at St. B is managed by the Catholic Health Corp., an independent third-party corporation.
It is not required to submit financial information to the WRHA, McLennan said.

Six years ago, the municipality of Delta (pop. 100,000) in the Metro Vancouver area, took a radical approach to complaints about high hospital parking fees: it passed a bylaw to ban them altogether.
The action brought howls of protest from the local hospital, which suffered a loss in revenue, and kudos from the general public, says the community’s longtime mayor, Lois Jackson.

In an interview this week, Jackson called expensive hospital parking fees "un-Canadian."
"I just felt that it was enough of a hardship on people having a loved one in the hospital... without the additional worry and burden of the financial problems associated with it," she said of Delta city council’s 2010 decision.

"It’s good for the patient, and it’s good for the family, and it’s good for the nurses and everybody," said Jackson, noting free public parking means families don’t have to ration time with loved ones and are more available to assist patients, freeing up staff for other tasks.

A Winnipeg project manager and human resources professional, whose young son had a heart transplant in 2008, said it was not difficult for him and his wife, using two vehicles, to rack up parking costs of $100 for overlapping shifts at the hospital.

But Donald Lepp is not a fan of free hospital parking, saying it’s unrealistic.
In a blog this week, Lepp (who is also a member of the board of trustees at Seven Oaks General Hospital) said if government were to subsidize parking, it would simply be taking funds from one bucket and putting it into another.

He said money targeted for health care should not be used to support non-health-related costs.
"Patients feel ripped off, because oftentimes they go to the hospital and wait. While they wait for whatever appointment or procedure is being done, the parking fees are mounting," Lepp wrote.
"A patient does not control how long they have to wait. What they pay for parking is just one more thing in the health-care system that they don’t have control over."

Hence the frustration.

Lepp said his issue with the system is he’s often at a hospital just long enough to incur the half-day rate, which kicks in after 60 minutes. "I end up paying for three hours of parking that I don’t use."
He said hospitals could make it easier for visiting family members: for example, if institutions issued pre-paid cards, charitable organizations or friends and family members could help out those who find parking fees burdensome.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Larry Kusch.

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