When BC announced the return of paid parking at hospitals last week, it reignited a debate over free parking at health care sites that has been raging in the province for decades.
The province had suspended parking fees at the start of the pandemic in April 2020, partly to reduce people’s anxiety, partly to reduce transmission from people touching pay kiosk screens, and partly as a show of respect to health care workers being asked to put their safety on the line inside hospitals during the frightening emergence of the deadly virus.
The hope from nurses and some New Democrats who led the charge for the change – like Port Coquitlam Mayor Brad West – was that free parking would be so popular it would become permanent.
There’s no doubting its popularity. Who doesn’t want to avoid $3.50 an hour at the hospital?
There’s also no doubt it had negative side effects too.
Just days after the start of free parking in 2020, a Royal Columbian Hospital emergency room doctor posted a video on social media slamming people who were using the hospital as a free park and ride lot for nearby the nearby Sappteron SkyTrain station, leaving nurses and doctors without any remaining spaces.
“Folks, please,” appealed the doctor, Kelly Kasteel. “This was meant for hospital patients who require access to the hospital.”
It didn’t work.
Complaints flooded in to the desk of Health Minister Adrian Dix, who this week killed the free parking initiative, citing abuse by people who’d stash their cars in a free hospital lot for the day while working or running errands elsewhere. Lots were so jammed full that neither patients nor health care workers could use them when most needed.
“We've made an adjustment based on what we've seen out there – the many dozens, if not hundreds, of complaints that I've received about not being able to find parking at all,” said Dix. “And so we're reintroducing pay parking and some important changes.”
BC waived $78 million in fees in the 21 months it allowed free parking.
That was unusually high, said Dix, who insists once things settle down BC will go back to netting out roughly $16 million in parking fees annually once it first pays for security, maintenance and other costs.
“A lot of that net revenue in places goes to the foundations, not to the health authorities, but to foundations,” he said. “They use it as part of their fundraising as part of the hospitals.”
And then of course whatever is left “the net revenue would go to pay for health services,” added Dix.
In making the link between parking fees and cash to pay for core health care, Dix is singing from the same song book every health minister of every party stripe has used for years.
“Should we, as a matter of policy, excuse patients and those visiting them from parking fees?” mused BC Liberal health minister Mike de Jong in 2011.
“Whilst I would love to be able to say yes, and understand the 23 seconds of fame and popularity I would acquire for so doing, I have to be honest that it would mean finding those revenues elsewhere in the budget and discontinuing some other service or program. I'm not certain Tommy Douglas had in mind free parking when he talked about universal, publicly funded health care.”
That’s not to say politicians don’t flirt with the idea of free parking like a carrot on a stick dangling just out reach of voters.
Premier John Horgan asked Dix to “look at” the issue shortly after the BC NDP took power in 2017 with its long list of populist promises.
Dix, perhaps to his credit, dragged his feet.
He refused to budge even when BC NDP members passed a resolution at their 2019 convention calling on their minister to get off his duff and "eliminate parking fees for patients and families visiting hospitals in B.C., while taking an evidence-based approach to ensure spaces are available and the system is not abused by those who are not patients or their family members."
The BC NDP resolution, which passed quite easily, called parking fees "a hardship during some of the most stressful moments in a family's life" and "give private companies the chance to profit from parking violations incurred by sick or grieving people using a publicly run service.”
Dix responded by freezing rates, making parking free for parents whose children stay in hospitals overnight, as well as for people with chronic conditions. But that’s as far as it appears he’s willing to go.
Advocates of free parking will decry the return of fees, pleading with the province to continue investigating whether there are better technological solutions to weeding out the abusers through licence plate readers, names, and staff lists. That will not only be costly but a privacy nightmare to execute.
We may not like paid parking at hospitals. It may not even be fair. But the cash is just too rich for health authorities to pass up. And quite frankly, we did this to ourselves by allowing parking scofflaws to clog up our hospitals and shrugging at the problem until the government had no choice.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.