Hospital Parking, a Pain in the Purse

Patients in Great Britain are successfully pressuring governments to wipe out parking charges.

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How about that—parking fees will be eliminated at most hospitals in Scotland! My eye almost slid past this week's announcement from the British Medical Association. But a closer look and a little digging turned up an interesting story that many U.S. patients will appreciate. I'd like to hear from you if you're one of them.

I found that hospital parking charges in the United Kingdom have been something of a hot button for years with patients and doctors. Care is free through the National Health Service, so why should patients have to pay to park at NHS hospitals? The fees are "an indirect tax on healthcare," says the BMA. "A stealth tax on illness," echoes Macmillan Cancer Support, a patient group.

Wales did away with the fees at its NHS hospitals in April. Scotland froze the maximum daily charge in January at 3 pounds, slightly more than $5, while the government studied the matter and then announced this week that the fees will be eliminated at the end of the year. England (where some hospitals charge more than $7 an hour and the daily charge can exceed $55) is reviewing the practice. Northern Ireland did away with the charges for cancer patients in May and is looking into further steps.

Parking? It seems like a tempest in a British teapot—until you get out the calculator. A 2005 Macmillan-funded study concluded that British cancer patients make an average of 60 hospital visits from their diagnosis to the end of their follow-up care, which translates into parking fees easily in the hundreds of dollars.

Many U.S. hospitals don't charge, especially for cancer and pediatric patients. Hospitals that impose parking fees typically do so to protect their limited spaces, says David Lambeck, marketing vice president of Republic Parking System, a Chattanooga, Tenn., company that manages parking operations at many U.S. hospitals. "If they were free, there would be no spaces left by 6 a.m.," he says.

Other than a few anecdotal grumbles, I've never heard much complaining about parking. Is it because the cost of hospital care in America is so high and so hard to understand that parking charges fade into the financial background, while in the U.K. system of free care they stand out in high relief like thorns? I'd like to know.