David Marsden: Hospital parking should always be free

If you need to visit a patient at a hospital or other publicly funded health-care facility, the parking is now free.

The United Conservative government’s policy came into effect Friday, putting a temporary end to the need for anxious families and friends to fumble through their wallets for the right amount of cash, or more likely, stick that ubiquitous piece of plastic into the machine so their car will be there when they return.

“Health-care workers and the general public should not have to worry about paying for parking in the midst of responding to COVID-19,” said Health Minister Tyler Shandro.

“Our government will provide whatever resources are needed to protect Albertans during the COVID-19 emergency.”

The government says the change will reduce the risk of people contracting COVID-19 from touch screens and buttons at the payment sites, but surely these surfaces are always at risk of carrying substances that can spread disease.

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Alberta Health Services announced a day later that it was imposing restrictions on visits to hospitals and other facilities. So, really, the government’s feel-good concession is symbolic: few Albertans are going to visit hospitals and other public health-care facilities in coming weeks anyway.

AHS’s limits are obviously implemented with the health of patients in mind. Only expectant mothers, children and those who are dying may receive visitors.

And even then, there are well-reasoned precautions in place to ensure that only those who are healthy are able to visit patients.

Still, the waiving of parking fees raises the question of why the financial penalties exist in the first place.

The government is signalling it is concerned for the welfare of those needing to visit patients stricken with the coronavirus, but where was the compassion for those who needed to be at the bedside of a loved one who had suffered a heart attack or underwent cancer surgery just days or months ago?

Anyone visiting a hospital does so out of great regard for the patient’s welfare. Those who navigate their way down unfamiliar corridors, and then into sterile rooms, are filled with an overwhelming mix of anxiousness, dread, duty and hopefulness.

Emotions such as these aren’t limited to the support circle of those diagnosed with COVID-19. They are universal.

Previously, AHS has said parking revenue is needed to ensure the facilities are self-sufficient and don’t draw money away from health care.

The provincial government, which oversees AHS, has now proven that’s not true.

The Jason Kenney government should make its hollow gesture whole by making free parking at health-care facilities a permanent policy.

People don’t patronize parkades because it’s fun. They do it out of necessity, and since health care is a fundamental right, it is immoral to charge Albertans to visit their loved ones. Visits make a tremendous difference to those who are bedridden, scared and detached from their ordinary lives.

Yes, there will be a public cost, but the government has demonstrated that even at a time when our health-care system faces the spectre of unprecedented expense and demand, parking fees are discretionary.

Sadly, it took a pandemic to make decision-makers realize that parking fees are a hard-hearted attack on those who must visit the sick.

Let that be at least one positive legacy of this difficult time.

David Marsden is managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

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