Rising hospital parking rates amount to a tax on ailing Canadians, says one medical specialist.
A CBC Marketplace report found many Canadians are missing hospital appointments and experiencing added stress due to the costs of parking at their local health centre.
"Parking fees are a penalty for having a disease," says cancer specialist Dr. Bob Winston. "It seems like an unfair tax on my patients."
Pricey hospital parking
A sampling of Canada's high hospital parking costs (daily maximum rates):
- Toronto General Hospital: $28
- Stollery Children's Hospital, Edmonton: $15-$32
- Vancouver General Hospital: $19.75
- Markham-Stouffville Hospital, Markham, Ont: $17
- Saskatoon City Hospital: $15
- QEII Health Sciences Centre, Halifax: $14
That "tax" affects patients in many negative ways, he says. Some patients tell him they can't afford to come to appointments and the overall cost, plus the pressure to keep feeding the meter, adds a level of stress that can interfere with their treatments and recovery.
"My patients have a lot of stress from the get-go, and with the addition of more stress with regards to the parking is sort of salt in the wound," he told Marketplace co-host Erica Johnson.
Vicki McKenna, vice-president of the Ontario Nursing Association, agrees.
"It's bad enough that you're having to seek treatment, and that you have an illness, and sometimes a chronic illness, but then you have to worry about parking? It just doesn't sit right with me, and it shouldn't be the way it is."
Survey finds costs create stress
As part of its investigation, Marketplace surveyed over 1,000 Canadians, and found 52 per cent said parking costs affect how often they can visit a hospital, or for how long.
Among the findings:
38 per cent said they couldn't visit a patient as frequently as they wanted.
20 per cent felt they couldn't afford to visit patients at all.
3 per cent skipped medical appointments.
14 per cent said they couldn't afford to volunteer.
Winston says nothing should interfere with patient visits.
"Patients benefit hugely by having family and friends come in, both from a psychological point of view but also from a practical point of view," he said. "Any inhibitions for support for the patients is the wrong thing."
The survey also found 72 per cent of hospital visitors said parking costs added stress to their visits, which can have a negative impact on their health.
"Adding the economic stressors on top of the physical stressors really does add to the recovery time, how well they do, and it even affects interpersonal relationships," McKenna said.
Financial strain on families
The stress of that financial burden affects more than just the patients.
Heather Stewart has made hundreds of trips to Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children since her daughter Kathryn was diagnosed with cancer in 2008. By her count, she made 147 hospital visits in 2011 alone, and has spent thousands of dollars on parking.
"This is a huge additional stressor on our family," she said. "We're tapped. Let alone the emotional strain of having an ill child, it's also the financial strain. We've made huge sacrifices, and we would do it all again because our daughter's worth it, but to feel like you're getting pinched again is disheartening."
Parking can be a major moneymaker for hospitals. The Hospital for Sick Children – which raised its parking rates in January – netted $5 million in parking fees in 2012.
Sick Kids spokesman Jim Garner says he has "a lot of empathy" for families like the Stewarts, but says "Sick Kids can't be responsible for the full cost over the course of treatment of a child that's going through a complicated disease."
He defends the costs, saying that $5 million goes into research, infrastructure and patient care.
Watch Marketplace's episode, Hospital Parking Pain, Friday at 8 p.m. (8:30 p.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador).
An online petition by the Ontario Parents Advocating for Children with Cancer, which calls for reduced parental parking rates at the Hospital for Sick Children, currently has 998 signatures.
In response, Garner says "the hospital tries to do everything it can do in a responsible and balanced way to support families and particularly those families who are in need."
He added that hospital representatives would be willing to meet the petitioning parents, "provided that it will be a constructive meeting."
Privatization increasing prices
Many hospitals are turning to privatized parking, which can be a double-edged sword, McKenna says; it allows hospitals to concentrate on patient care, but it means someone else controls the parking.
"Unless you have it in your contract specifically about how it will be staffed, how it will be maintained, what the max parking fees are… you lose control of it. And I think that's what's happened in most hospitals in Ontario."
McKenna concedes that hospitals need reliable revenue streams, but argues that it's unfair to put the burden on already troubled families, and says hospitals should find another way to make money.
"I understand (charging for parking), but we have to take it a bit further than just talking about how much revenue we can get. We have to think about there's a cost to that, not only to the patient, but to the system overall.
"Decisions should be made about patients and patient care, and the quality of health services. Not about how much revenue we can make," she added.
I'm not saying I want free parking," she said. "I'm saying we need to consider who we're trying to tap for this money.
"You can't keep putting more stressors on families, people who are already tapped or else you're going to see a bigger drain on the healthcare system (because) they've got all these other stressors including money, that's causing more health issues. It's kind of a vicious circle."
Watch Marketplace's episode, Hospital Parking Pain.