You’re sitting in the waiting-room, nervous and stressed about a procedure or a meeting with a doctor, and you suddenly wonder whether you brought enough money to pay for the car park.
You're rushing your partner, in the throes of labour, to the National Maternity Hospital, only to forget your change for the meter.
You’re attending a chemotherapy session but can’t afford the €15 charge it will cost you in parking fees, so you try the bus instead, but feel ill and groggy on the way home.
You’re visiting a friend or a relative. You know they want you to stay, but another five minutes will double the amount you owe. So, should you stay or should you go?
It’s a relatively new development in Ireland, but one which is increasingly causing stress and frustration to patients and hospital visitors alike: hospital car parking charges.
They have grown insidiously in Ireland in recent years, as hospitals – and private car parking operators alike – look to profit on the steady flow of visitors to medical centres across the country.
And whatever about placing a nominal charge on parking to keep spaces free and help with the upkeep of the area, hospitals are now raking it in by charging ever-increasing sums for patients and visitors to park in them.
Last year, figures from the HSE show that at least €19.25 million in parking charges were generated by hospitals across the country, with Cork University Hospital generating €3.1 million – the highest in 2016, at almost €8,500 a day. Other high earners include St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin, which earned €2.79 million, and St James’s Hospital, which brought in €2.4 million.
The most expensive hospitals
Logic would suggest that the most expensive hospital car parks would be found in areas where parking is already at a premium, such as city centres around the country, or in the Dublin hospitals.
However, this isn’t always the case. As our table shows, while the two hospitals with the most expensive hourly rates – at €3.20 – are found in Dublin, University Hospital Kerry is in third, with a hefty hourly rate of €3. This is even more expensive than the €2.90 an hour you’ll pay on the streets surrounding Merrion Square if attending the National Maternity Hospital.
On the upside, most hospitals have a maximum daily or weekly charge in place, which will, at least, cap the amount you’ll have to hand over. Our Lady’s Hospital Crumlin for example, offers a weekly rate of €36, while Letterkenny General Hospital has a weekly rate of €24.
However, this can also be steep; the Coombe, for example, offers a reasonable rate of €2.50 for up to four hours, and a special daily rate for the day of delivery of €7.50. However, it has a maximum daily rate of €26 normally – a steep price.
Car park v on-street parking?
One particular quirk of hospital car parks is that many are more expensive to park in than in nearby on-street parking – a factor, perhaps, of convenience and added security.
Consider the Mater Private in the north of the capital. It charges a hefty fee of €3.20 an hour – one of the most expensive rates in the survey – to park in its hospital, although fees are capped at €15 a day. If you decide not to pay these charges, and rely on the change in your wallet or on a parking app to park on the street, you’ll pay between €1.60 to €2.90 per hour.
Many hospitals are also located near free options. At Wilton Shopping Centre, across from Cork University Hospital, for example, parking is free, while the Crescent Shopping Centre, close to University Hospital Limerick, offers 1,500 free car-parking spaces.
Free parking for anyone?
Some hospitals still offer all their patients and visitors free parking, including Ennis, Nenagh and Croom. Others offer free parking to those most in need.
At the Coombe maternity hospital, for example, parents whose babies are in neonatal care can get free parking, while others, including St Luke’s in Rathgar, offer cancer patients free parking.
However, many patient associations say it’s not enough.
Earlier this year the Irish Cancer Society launched an appeal to get hospitals to cut charges for cancer patients, many of whom will spend long hours receiving chemotherapy. It found that cancer patients were paying up to €63 a week in car-parking charges – and it wants these charges reduced.
“Patients who are regular repeat visitors, such as cancer patients, should be given at a minimum reduced-cost parking, or preferably free parking,” says Donal Buggy, head of services and advocacy with the Irish Cancer Society.
Cork University Hospital is one of the few designated cancer centres to offer subsidised parking for cancer patients undergoing treatment. Outpatients with cancer attending the hospital will pay just €5 a day, compared with €15 otherwise.
Similarly, Blackrock Clinic in Dublin offers a reduced rate of €4 to regular visitors at its oncology unit, while cancer patients attending South Tipperary General Hospital in Clonmel pay a reduced rate of €10 for two days.
However, while the Irish Cancer Society has found the HSE open to talking about it, they have yet to have a “meaningful sit-down to thrash it out”, says Buggy.
But the society remains hopeful that costs will come down; at the South Infirmary Victoria University Hospital in Cork, costs have fallen from €12 to €5 since the campaign started.
In the meantime, the society has arranged a volunteer driving programme, which provides transport for cancer patients attending hospitals including University Hospital Limerick and St Vincent’s University Hospital, Dublin, bringing them to and from their hospital chemotherapy treatments.
But even when patients are entitled to free parking, it can be tricky to secure.
While the Coombe, for example, offers free parking to families who have been bereaved or have someone who is suffering a serious illness in the hospital, it’s not automatic.
“The decision to grant this concession will be at the discretion of the ward clinical manager,” the hospital says, and the bereaved will have to take the voucher to the security office to get a replacement ticket to allow them to leave the car park.
It’s not the most straightforward of approaches for people at what might be a tremendously difficult time.
Where does the money go?
According to the HSE, each hospital/hospital group implements its own car park guidelines.
Generally, however, it appears that the income goes on general running costs – and is therefore unlikely to end up funding frontline medical services.
While a number of hospitals in the South/South West Hospital Group, including Mallow General Hospital, don’t charge for parking, of those that do, including Cork University Hospital and University Hospital Kerry, the income from the charges is invested back into the hospitals for the provision of services for patient care, a spokeswoman for the group says.
“Income is also used to fund the upgrade and upkeep of the car parks, security staff, security cameras and their management systems,” she says.
Of course, not all the money goes to the HSE in any case. Many hospitals have employed private companies to operate their car parks – and take a share in the revenues. Park Rite, for example, operates car parks at St James's Hospital and Galway University Hospital, while Euro Car Parks runs parking at the Mater Private and University Hospital Limerick.
According to its most recent accounts for 2015, Euro Car Parks reported revenue of some €9 million in that year – about a quarter of which (€2.2 million), was given to “site owners”, which would likely include the aforementioned hospitals.