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'It broke us' : Parking fees strain cancer patients while building revenue for UNC


Scott Reece, 45, helps his wife, Nunny Reece, 41, who has stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, tie her shoes on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. Nunny Reece and her husband frequent UNC Hospital often and face additional challenges due to parking costs, which typically are up to $10 a day. On this day, Reece had a parking permit due to her receiving radiation treatment all week. 

Between taking care of her child, medication and copay costs, chemotherapy and doctor’s appointments, and making the two-hour drive from Fayetteville to Chapel Hill every week, the last thing Nunny Reece wants to worry about is a parking fee.

Stage 4 breast cancer has landed Reece, 41, at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center on a weekly basis for the last two years. She estimates that at one point, she paid $60 per month for parking near the hospital.

UNC generated $3.7 million in revenue through the Dogwood Parking Deck in its 2018-19 fiscal year. Dogwood is one of two primary parking areas for UNC Hospitals patients and visitors, and each lot charges a fee of $1.50 an hour with a daily maximum of $10. 

Most long-term patients, such as those with cancer, pay the same amount for parking at UNC Hospitals as every other visitor. While alternative options have been created for a few specific circumstances, many patients don’t qualify and have seen parking expenses pile up. 

In the eyes of Reece, who must park one to three times per week for chemotherapy treatments that last five to seven hours, those expenses aren’t fair.

“We’re already dealing with other issues — trying to get medications, things that we need — it’s not cheap,” Reece said. “Having to pay for parking — it’s like, 'OK, can we get a break?'”

‘It broke us’

Ira Green, a 67-year-old Raleigh resident, goes to chemotherapy at Lineberger every two weeks. He said he typically stays for six or seven hours at a time, so he often pays the Dogwood Deck’s $10 maximum.

Since his stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis three years ago, he now receives Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare benefits. He said he wouldn’t be able to pay the parking expenses if he didn’t get financial help from his friends and brother.

“I just think it’s a very unsympathetic thing that the University does with the cancer patients,” Green said. “I really feel that if you’re on Medicare or Medicaid and living on Social Security, there’s no reason they can’t give you a pass.”

Although he lives in Raleigh, Green said he doesn’t want to leave Lineberger because he likes his oncologist. 

Unlike the on-campus hospitals, parking at UNC REX Healthcare — a UNC Health Care hospital located in Raleigh — is free, along with two free valet services in front of its cancer center and heart hospital. REX owns the parking decks its patients use. 

“As long as there has been parking, it has been free for patients, visitors and coworkers,” REX spokesperson Alan Wolf said.

Chapel Hill resident Shannon Queen, 37, said she experienced difficulties paying for parking when her late fiancé, Thomas Davis, was visiting Lineberger from July to December last year. 

The couple typically parked in the Dogwood Deck, but when Queen’s fiancé began having issues walking, they started using a valet service for which UNC charges $12 per day. 

“It broke us,” Queen said. “It was constant. We were paying out (of pocket). We would go with $20 and we would come home with nothing.”

Revenue generator

UNC owns all parking lots and decks on campus.  That means UNC Hospitals — which includes five individual hospitals on campus that are owned by statewide not-for-profit system UNC Health Care — does not gain revenue from fees in those areas. 

Cheryl Stout, director of UNC Transportation and Parking, said the fees generate revenue to offset expenditures such as capital costs, staffing and maintenance. The department does not plan to lower the parking rates for hospital patients, she said.

Handicapped spots in the campus hospital area are available at the same standard price as Dogwood Deck.

The University does offer long-term patients who must stay for multiple nights a $10 week-long parking pass for its S11 lots on South Campus. However, because Reece typically comes to the hospital once a week and doesn’t stay overnight, the option doesn't apply to her.

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Stout said patients also have the option of an “indigent patient” parking program. If a patient at Dogwood Deck cannot pay the fee for the day, they can ask the parking attendant for a nonpayment form, which requires their personal and vehicle information but no financial information.

Once a nonpayment form is submitted, the cost of that unpaid parking fee is split by the University and UNC Hospitals.

However, Green, Reece and Queen said they weren’t aware of the option. Neither the indigent program nor the actual form patients must fill out are available online or mentioned in the UNC Hospitals Patient Information Handbook. 

Jeff Watson, manager of UNC Hospitals’ parking, said he receives calls from patients asking about the indigent program every day, but he added that he doesn’t know if “that many” of them actually finalize the process needed to gain its benefits.

UNC Health Care spokesperson Tom Hughes estimated the indigent program subsidizes about 1,000 parking hours monthly from the Dogwood Deck.

'Our hands are tied'

Certain Lineberger clinics have developed their own parking systems to assist patients, which the hospitals pay for themselves, said Bill Schaller, Lineberger’s director of communications and marketing.

“Our hands are tied in the sense that we’re not setting the price for parking or generating revenue from parking, since the University owns the garage,” he said.

Lineberger's breast cancer center funds a parking voucher program with its own donations and grants for clinical trial and advanced breast cancer patients, like Reece.

An employee at the breast cancer center began offering Reece those vouchers a year ago, after she complained about parking costs. But Reece said since then, the passes still haven’t always been available.

The UNC Department of Radiation Oncology also offers free one-hour parking passes on its own dime for patients going to radiation appointments, Schaller said.

However, both Green and Queen said no one has ever informed them of any reduced-price parking options.

Reece said she understands if hospital visitors should be charged, but thinks cancer patients should have free parking.

“I’m sure they can figure out another way to pay their bills — not by collecting off us,” Reece said.