Some Dublin hospitals are charging patients and visitors over seven times more to park their cars than hospitals outside the capital, and are asking them to pay daily rates of up €15 per vehicle, according to figures obtained by the Sunday Tribune.
The latest figures, released by the HSE under the Freedom of Information Act, have prompted the Irish Patients Association (IPA) to claim that some hospitals are seeking to make up funding shortfalls by charging "exorbitant" car-parking rates.
Among the most expensive hospitals for car-parking are St Michael's hospital in Dun Laoghaire (€15 daily rate), St Vincent's hospital in south Dublin (€14 for seven to 24 hours) and St James's hospital in Dublin 8 (€12 for six to 24 hours).
This compares with a blanket charge of just €2 in Portiuncula hospital in Galway for any length of stay, €3 per day in Wexford general hospital, and €4 per day in St Luke's hospital, Kilkenny.
Others, such as St Columcille's hospital in Loughlinstown and Roscommon county hospital, as well as most smaller regional hospitals, do not charge patients or visitors for parking.
Several hospitals on the list, including city-centre-based facilities such as the National Maternity hospital on Holles Street and the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear hospital on Adelaide Road, do not provide parking facilities for visitors.
The figures, which cover 20 hospitals around the country, reveal that the cost per hour to park at St Michael's in Dun Laoghaire is €2, with the cost per day set at €15.
At St James's hospital in Dublin, the first 10 minutes are free, with rates of €2 per hour capped at €12 for between six and 24 hours.
At St Vincent's, the first 20 minutes are free, after which time the cost is €2.50 for the first hour. This rises to €12.90 for six to seven hours, and €14 for seven to 24 hours.
By comparison, parking is "free and does not have a time restriction" according to the website for James Connolly hospital in Blanchardstown.
Hospitals, particularly those in built-up urban areas where space is at a premium, have in the past pointed out that their charges help to ensure car-parking space is kept for patients and visitors rather than people looking for a free parking space while they go shopping or to work.
However, IPA chairman Stephen McMahon criticised the lack of consistency in charging and said patients or their families often had little choice but to pay "exorbitant" charges at what can be a very difficult time in their lives.
He was aware of instances where family members spent "thousands of euro" on car- park charges while maintaining a bedside vigil for a relative.
"If there are costs associated with providing car-parking services, then they should be factored into the running costs of hospitals. There should be a nominal charge but not more," he said.
"It is our experience that not all of the hospitals are identifying people in need of special discounts."
Six years ago, the comptroller and auditor general criticised Beaumont hospital in Dublin after he found that a public-private partnership deal which led to the building of its multi-storey car park had left the state out of pocket by €13m because of the way in which the deal was managed.
The hospital did not provide details of its car-parking rates under FOI, which it said "are set and adjusted from time to time" by the company which runs it, Howard Holdings.
Car-park rates at the hospital when the Sunday Tribune visited it last week were €2.20 for the first hour, with a maximum of €8.50 for a daily pass.
This newspaper had also sought details of total revenue from clamping at each acute hospital last year.
In most cases, this information was not provided, either because clamping was not in operation at the facility, or the hospitals said this information was unavailable.
St James's hospital said it took in €24,000 in clamping-release fees last year, which it noted was a "deterrent predominantly to stop park-and-ride for members of the public not attending the hospital", while the Mid Western Regional hospital at Dooradoyle in Limerick said it received a total of €620.