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To be truly free, the NHS needs to scrap hospital parking charges

Patients should not be put off going to hospital, nor relatives from visiting their loved ones, by parking fees.

Patients should not be put off going to hospital, nor relatives from visiting their loved ones, by parking fees.
A general view of the Gloucestershire Royal Hospital. Photograph: Getty Images.
The NHS is one of the greatest aspects of Britain’s society that makes us proud to be British, according to a 2010 survey. This is no surprise - our health service provides an excellent standard of care, free at the point of delivery, for all of its citizens. But for millions of people across England, using this service and visiting their loved ones can result in a them being significantly worse off
 
Since being elected as MP for Harlow in 2010, I have contacted countless times by constituents who have been outraged at the cost of hospital parking. I therefore decided to launch an investigation into the costs of parking at hospitals across England. 
 
The results were shocking: not only were some hospitals charging extortionate amounts for even short stays, but there were also huge variations in the prices that visitors face across the country. The average charge for car parking at hospitals across England as a whole is around £1.50 per hour, sliding up to around £7.80 per day. Yet there is a stark contast between the regions, ranging from £3.50 per day in the East Midlands, up to £26.00 per day in South East London. Overall, three quarters of hospitals in England charge patients and visitors to park in their car parks, whereas hospital parking is free in Scotland and Wales.
 
Notably, many of the hospitals who charge do offer concessions for particular types of patients, but not only are there often countless sets of circumstances that a patient must meet to fulfill the requirements, they normally have to plan ahead and apply for discounted parking. Naturally, this will be the last thing on the mind of many patients and visitors, who therefore end up paying in full.
 
So how are these charges justified?
 
Many hospitals say that they reinvest the money in clinical services. In effect this means that people who drive to hospital for any number of reasons, are subsidising those who come by other means. This seems an arbitrary and wholly unfair way to decide how much somebody should pay for an essential service. Additionally many patients have no choice in how they get to hospital. As well as those who live in rural areas or have to travel at unconventional times, Macmillan (which campaigns on this issue for cancer patients) has pointed out that “public transport and hospital transport are often neither adequate nor suitable for cancer patients.”
 
Everyone should have fair and equal access to NHS treatment. Ideally this would mean making hospital parking free, but there are a number of problems to address in doing this. 
 
First, there is the worry that non-visitors would abuse the free parking spaces. However, this can be addressed fairly easily by introducing a voucher or token system similar to what is used in many supermarkets. Already, this system is in place at many of the 25% of hospitals that have free parking. 
 
Second, there is the issue of cost. A consultation in 2010 estimated the cost of scrapping car park fees at around £200m. Understandably, many people worry that this money would be taken from vital frontline care budgets, but there are many other areas in which savings could be made without impacting patient welfare. One example of this is the prescription and administration of branded drugs in GP surgeries and pharmacies. 
 
Many attempts have been made to encourage both groups to use generic drugs more consistently. Where they have been successful, there have been huge savings, with almost £400m cut from the drugs budget in 2008 by prescribing more generics for common conditions. A study by Prescribing Analytics in 2012 showed that we are still wasting £200m every year on branded statins alone. Progress has been impeded, however, by the drug companies themselves. 
 
As well as the ability they have to influence clinicians in their choices of prescriptions, a consultation on generic substitution in 2010 was met with a letter of criticism co-authored by patients and doctors. It later transpired that the letter had been organised by a PR company, themselves commissioned in the task by a drugs company, Norgine.
 
Even if the money could be saved, some would argue, it would be better put to use in improving patient care. This underestimates the importance many place on the availability of hospital parking. In the last National Patient Choice Survey for September 2008, car parking was rated as one of the factors in choosing a hospital by 46 per cent of respondents. 
 
Patients should not be put off going to hospital, nor relatives from visiting their loved ones, by parking charges. A case study by Macmillan featured a man who had to cut down on food to afford parking charges and other costs associated with getting to hospital.
 
This is against the founding principle of the National Health Service. We are punishing many of the most vulnerable people in the country, not only very ill people but also their worried friends and relatives. A system in which not all patients can equally and freely access services does not seem to me to be equal or free.

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