The NHS has not given enough attention to hospital car parking charges, Health Secretary Andy Burnham said as he launched a consultation on the issue today.
People will be asked their views on proposals to abolish charges for some out-patients as well as in-patients.
Mr Burnham pledged to phase out car park costs for in-patients over the next three years when he addressed the Labour Party conference in September.
The Health Secretary also said he wanted to introduce parking permits to allow friends and relatives to visit in-patients for free.
The eight-week consultation will ask if free parking should be available for visitors to all in-patients or if it should only become free for friends and relatives of those admitted for a long stay.
It will also suggest options to make parking charges fairer for out-patients.
These include giving access to free parking for those who need to attend a series of appointments or placing a cap on charges for priority out-patient groups who attend regular hospital appointments.
Mr Burnham told GMTV: "I am aware of the strong feelings on the issue and to be honest I don't think the NHS has given the attention it deserves to this issue because people do feel very strongly about it.
"What I am saying is that people who are going into hospital are often at a low point in their life emotionally or financially.
"The cost of parking can add extra pressure to them so I am saying we need to do more to recognise that and to have fairer parking charges across the NHS.
"The consultation we are launching today is to develop a clear set of principles that we can apply across the system and that is why I want to hear people's views."
He said out-patients receiving regular treatment such as chemotherapy or dialysis could face "very serious charges too" and asked for views on both in- and out- patients.
The Health Secretary said he noticed the problems caused by parking costs when his father was in hospital earlier this year.
"It really brought home to me how some people were not getting the number of visits as others were because their family could not afford the charges," he said. "I am very clear that that is a part of patient care, having regular contact with the family. It can help people recover more quickly."
Mr Burnham acknowledged it cost the NHS money to run secure car parks in hospitals but said there was a "balance to be struck".
"It is right that we make sure that the funds that are raised come back to benefit patients," he added.
"I also believe there are efficiencies that hospitals can make that can make this affordable to them so we've thought carefully about it.
"We want to get the balance right."
Mike Hobday, head of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: "We are delighted that the Government has finally listened to our repeated calls and is now looking at giving free parking for all cancer patients.
"At long last the Westminster Government has acknowledged the high cost to patients and it is time they abolished these charges once and for all in England.
"A recent poll by Macmillan showed that eight out of 10 people want the Government to abolish hospital parking charges for cancer patients.
"Hospitals save £6,000 by delivering a six-week course of radiotherapy on an out-patient basis - money which could, and should, be used to help all cancer patients with the cost of parking.
"We hope that the consultation will result in the lifting of a great financial burden for cancer patients.
"Charging people to visit hospital to receive life-saving treatment has caused needless distress for far too long and is nothing more than a tax on illness."
The average charge for hospital car parking per hour in England in 2008/9 was £1.09.
All trusts are expected to have concessionary schemes to offer reduced price or free parking for patients who visit hospital regularly and the trusts are responsible for ensuring that eligible patients are aware of concessions.
The Department of Health consultation will close on 23 February next year.Reuse content