A review of car parking schemes at hospitals across Northern Ireland should ensure more patients can avoid charges, Health Minister Michael McGimpsey pledged today.
But he rejected a call at the Assembly for entirely free car parking at all hospitals, warning it would effectively waste public money that could be invested in the health service.
Mr McGimpsey said he had already introduced free parking for very ill patients and today he announced a review to ensure as many people as possible benefited.
Deputy chair of the health committee, Michelle O'Neill, (Sinn Fein, Mid Ulster) said members of the public had raised the fact that free parking was available in Scotland and Wales.
Despite the arguments against the move made by the minister, Mrs O'Neill said: "Members of the committee and others have put the opposite point of view that it (charging for parking) is effectively a tax on ill health.
"It is unfair (for) patients and visitors that are attending hospital, often at a time when they are extremely worried or stressed about their own health or that of a relative, or indeed maybe they have just lost a close relative.
"And as has been said the last thing that people in that situation need is to worry about car parking charges."
Tabling a health committee motion calling for free parking, she acknowledged the steps made earlier this year by the minister to remove charges for patients receiving cancer treatment or attending hospital regularly for dialysis.
"But this still leaves many others who are suffering from other chronic conditions and have to attend hospital or clinics on a regular basis are facing considerable charges," she said.
The Health Minister said he would order health trusts to review the cases of patients currently paying parking fees.
He said he hoped that this would see greater numbers granted free parking.
Mr McGimpsey also argued that charges helped counteract what he said was the very serious problem of commuters using some hospital car parks to avoid paying for commercial parking.
And he warned that current spending on car parking at hospitals illustrated how expensive a completely free service would be.
"In the recent few years the investment totalled almost £22 million in car parking facilities, now that £22 million has to be found by the health service," said Mr McGimpsey.
"For that £22 million I could build the new health and care centre in Newtownards and I could build the new health and care centre in Craigavon and I would have money left over.
"That's the sort of order of money, so we do need to look for an income."
He said some hospital parking cost as little as £1 for four hours and he argued that such outlays could not warrant the huge burden free parking would place on his department.
The SDLP's Tommy Gallagher said the current free parking scheme was not being implemented uniformly around the various health trusts.
"I think it is unfair to those who are vulnerable and sick if they are in effect being taxed for attending hospital for treatment," he said.
The DUP's Alex Easton (North Down) said abuses of hospital car parking must be addressed.
But he added: "I value the national health service and at its heart is the central tenet of health service free at the point of delivery... it could be rightly perceived that charging for car parking is an unwarranted interference in this and therefore charging should be rejected."
Ulster Unionist Danny Kennedy asked how the sponsors of today's motion would pay for free parking, but still provide adequate numbers of places to accommodate staff, patients and relatives.
Mr Kennedy said: "Some people in this Assembly need to grow-up and wise-up and not simply indulge themselves or their parties in at present unattainable Santa-type wish lists, especially given that those same parties are actually at the head of this administration."
Strangford MLA Kieran McCarthy also hit out at charging patients and their families.
The Alliance representative said: "It is simply a tax on the sick and it is wrong.
"We should commend the minister for starting along the road to free car parking... but we should complete that journey."
The minister agreed with the description of the issue as a journey, but said that at this stage he could not justify the cost, despite cross-party support for the move today in the Assembly.