Hospital parking costs a barrier to health care, says patient advocate

Parking fees for cancer patients and others with ongoing treatment aren't just a hassle, but a barrier to accessing health care, says the chair of Patients Canada.

Most recent B.C. patient asking for parking fees to be waived one of many of across Canada

Nancy Pilling is one of many people across Canada who thinks parking for cancer patients should be free while they're in treatment. (CBC News)

Parking fees for cancer patients and others with ongoing treatment aren't just a hassle, but a barrier to accessing health care, says the chair of Patients Canada.

Michael Decter, an economist and former deputy health minister of Ontario, said parking is increasingly an issue for patients, as more get treatment for chronic disease — and as parking fees keep rising.

"If parking becomes a barrier to people getting treatment, that's a very bad thing," said Decter.

His comments come as another Canadian patient cries foul about the parking fees she paid to get access to treatment — this time, a Vancouver cancer patient who racked up about $300 in fees and half a dozen parking tickets while she was being treated for uterine cancer at the B.C. Cancer Agency in Vancouver.

Nancy Pilling has written a letter to the city, asking it to consider providing free street parking for those getting cancer treatment.

"If you're lying on a table waiting for radiation, you can't just jump up and plug your meter," she wrote to the city. "As someone who has gone through and survived cancer, I can't tell you the anxiety experienced at finding a parking ticket on my vehicle."

Parking costs are a long-standing issue at Canadian hospitals, with doctors arguing they interfere with care and calling them an "unfair tax" on patients, but what is the solution?

'It was an enormous help'

Carolyn Leblanc knows what it means to have that parking anxiety relieved during a difficult time — her 19-year-old daughter, Julianne, underwent cancer treatment from 2012 to 2014 in Sudbury and London, Ont.

Patients can easily rack up hundreds of dollars in parking fees during treatment at hospitals.

For treatments in London, they were driving more than ten hours from their home in Sudbury, which was difficult for her very ill daughter.

After a couple of visits, a nurse in the pediatric oncology ward connected Leblanc's family with a program that provided a free parking pass, good for six months, for the families of children getting cancer treatment.

There was no financial hardship test or complicated red-tape, she recalls.

"It was an enormous help," says Leblanc, who now lives in Victoria, B.C.

"When you're trying to rush an ill person back and forth from the car to the treatment centre and back again, ... [a parking pass] is such a small thing to make life easier for people who are dealing with so much."

The parking passes were provided by a non-profit group, Childcan, which supports families of children with cancer in southwestern Ontario.

No simple solution

The B.C. Cancer Agency told CBC News that financial hardship permits for parking are available on a case-by-case basis, and patients can discuss their options with Patient and Family Counselling at the B.C. Cancer Agency.

In 2011, the Canadian Medical Association Journal said hospitals should stop charging patients for parking. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Some locations have access to no-charge passes or an emergency taxi fund, but that varies across the province.

"I don't think there's a simple solution," cautions Michael Decter, because hospitals have a "legitimate fear" of losing revenue if they offer free parking too broadly.

"There's a bit of a balancing act between the hospital needing revenue to provide care and people needing to get access to care," he said.

Still, he points out that Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins has pledged to take action to combat hospital parking fees — and encourages cities and hospitals to talk to patients about the issue.

"It's a time of enormous stress for patients," said Decter. "Too often the solution is for the patient to bear the burden."

With files from Lisa Johnson and Bal Brach

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