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Last Updated: Monday, 3 March 2008, 13:54 GMT
NHS car park charges - a necessary evil?
By Nick Triggle
Health reporter, BBC News

Hospital car parking charges are to be scrapped in Wales. But what about elsewhere and why has the NHS persisted with this deeply unpopular policy?

Hospital car park (library photo)
Hosptial car parking charging policy differs across the UK

On the face of it, not many people would agree with the concept of having to pay to park a car during a visit to hospital.

Cancer campaigners have called the policy "morally wrong", pointing out the sickest patients are hit the hardest.

But once you dig a bit deeper, the issue becomes a little less clear cut.

Michael Sobanja, chief executive of the NHS Alliance, which represents primary care trusts, responsible for overseeing the charges in England, says: "The problem in urban areas is that if you have free parking people use the car parks while they go shopping, they abuse the system.

"On top of that, they have become an important source of income to hospitals. Stop charging and ultimately it leads to less money for care. In a way, they are a necessary evil."

Revenue

Car parking charges are undoubtedly an important source of revenue.

In England, the government leaves it to individual trusts to decide how much to charge and how to administer the system.

It means practices vary from place to place with prices reaching 4 an hour at some hospital.

Freedom of Information data released in 2006 showed that hospitals were making up to 1.5m a year from charges.

It is unfair to levy charges on patients
Katherine Murphy, of the Patients Association

In reality, parking revenue is often used to make grounds improvements, such as external lighting, walkways and security rather than being spent on treatment.

But ministers in England have been quick to point out that in turn this means the hospital's overall budgets do not have to be raided for these measures, indirectly leaving more money for treatment.

Many hospitals also run subsidised schemes for those on low incomes and patients that have to make regular visits to hospital.

But patients groups still remain implacably opposed to the charges.

HAVE YOUR SAY
Parking should be free only for actual users of the hospital
Bob Price, Cardiff
Katherine Murphy, of the Patients Association, says: "Even when they are subsidised, the schemes are not promoted.

"In the end, we feel it is unfair to levy charges on patients.

"Many have to make frequent trips to hospital and the a couple of pounds here and a couple of pounds there can make it difficult.

"There are plenty of other ways hospitals raise revenues."

So is there a solution? Perhaps. The reaction to Scotland's recent proposal illustrates that they have at least found the middle ground.

At the end of last year, ministers announced there would be a cap of 3 a day on charges.

They had initially favoured making it free, but after a panel of experts looked at the issue, decided against the move because of concerns about abuse of the system and the need to cover the policing of car parks.

The move was hardly met with whoops of delight, but nor were ministers castigated for not scrapping them altogether.



SEE ALSO
Hospital parking 'a tax on sick'
27 Feb 08 |  South West Wales
NHS staff protest at parking fees
02 Jul 07 |  South East Wales

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