KNOX – Why can’t hospital parking be free? Well, somebody has to pay

(Victoria Times Colonist photo)
(Victoria Times Colonist photo)

NOBODY GOES to the hospital for fun.

And nobody likes paying for parking.

knox-jack-colhed-nkWhich means people really, really don’t like paying for parking at hospitals. It’s like having salt rubbed in the wound you’re about to have stitched up.

Which is why many cheered this week when Campbell River’s municipal council passed a bylaw barring Island Health from charging for parking at its new hospital there.

Which raises the question: If not Campbell River, why anywhere?

Which brings the reply: Nothing is really free.

Most Islanders are used to paying to park at hospitals. We do it at Victoria General, the Jubilee, Saan Pen, Nanaimo, St. Joseph’s in Comox…

Fee-free anomalies exist, though: Duncan, Port Alberni, Campbell River. That was expected to change in Campbell River this fall when the existing hospital is replaced by a new 95-bed, $275-million facility — except now the city has passed a bylaw banning parking fees on lands zoned for hospitals, schools, churches, police stations, rec centres and most parks.

Campbell River isn’t the first B.C. municipality to prohibit pay parking at hospitals. Mission doesn’t allow it. Delta banned it pre-emptively in 2010 after learning Fraser Health planned to install meters. Delta council was backed by MLA Vicki Huntington, whom the Vancouver Sun quoted as calling hospital pay parking “a distasteful and miserly way to treat people, many of whom are already under duress. Just how many more ways can the arms of government find to rob us of every discretionary penny we have?”

This isn’t a new issue. In 2000, after the imposition of pay parking at the Priory Hospital and Heritage Woods prompted staff and visitors to crowd their cars onto the shoulder of Goldstream Avenue, Langford Mayor Stew Young threatened to send bylaw officers after the health authority unless it got rid of what he called an unlicensed pay-parking business.

The debate isn’t limited to B.C., either. The Canadian Medical Association Journal has called parking charges “user fees in disguise,” at odds with the Canada Health Act, which says access to health care shouldn’t be impeded by financial barriers. Ontario ordered its hospitals to freeze parking rates in January 2016, then followed up in October with cost reductions for frequent visitors. The only Prince Edward Island hospital to charge for parking ceased doing so last year.

Still, most visitors to Canadian hospitals pay to park — and it’s not hard to find people with tales of woe in consequence. Last year, Global reported on an Okanagan senior with heart and mobility issues who spends 20 minutes caning his way to a Penticton hospital for appointments rather than pay for parking. The CBC ran a 2013 story about a Richmond woman who ran up $1,800 in parking charges while visiting her son and husband, who were dying in separate hospitals.

So, what’s the justification?

Island Health argues that it needs parking revenue — $7.6 million collected around the Island last year — to maintain and improve the parking lots themselves. That’s everything from cleaning catch basins to adding lighting to providing security. Without the fees, the money would have to come from elsewhere in Island Health’s $2.2-billion budget.

In other words, either you pay for parking or grandma doesn’t get her hip replaced. Or something like that. (But then you could apply that same argument to any government-run facilities — schools, pools, recreation centres, libraries. Any money spent on the parking lot is money that doesn’t get spent inside.)

Island Health doesn’t say so, but fees also discourage people who aren’t patients from hogging parking spots — kind of the way you do when parking at the mall and pretending to shop there, but really scuttling over to the store across the street. Only a select few are supposed to park for free in Island Health pay lots: renal patients, hospital volunteers, members of the hospital auxiliary, those who provide spiritual care.

As for Campbell River council’s decision, Island Health says it doesn’t yet know what the impact will be. It has reiterated its policy, which is that pay parking will be included at all new hospitals, including the 153-bed, $132-million one opening in Courtenay late this year.

Stay tuned.

Jack Knox is a columnist for the Victoria Times Colonist and a former Kamloopsian who had to pay for parking.

© Copyright Times Colonist

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