Op-Ed: Michigan Medicine hospitals are great. So why is parking such a pain?

Sunday, November 10, 2019 - 1:41pm

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The hospitals at Michigan Medicine are the best in the state and among the best in the entire nation. So why is it so hard to park here?  

The story of Michigan Medicine over the past two decades is a story of continual expansion: more hospitals, clinics, academic buildings, patients and employees. 

It’s painfully obvious that if you spend hundreds of millions of dollars to add buildings and people to an already crowded medical complex, you need to put some thought — and resources — into more parking, more shuttle buses and other transportation options. 

Unfortunately, the University administration does not have a firm understanding of the obvious. The result is considerable pain for patients seeking care and for workers whose jobs are to provide that care. 

By pain, we mean patients who must arrive at their appointments an hour or more ahead of time, adding another toll to what may be an already stressful experience associated with health care appointments.

By pain, we mean nurses leaving their homes at 5 a.m. to arrive for a 12-hour shift beginning at 7 a.m. Since a U-M “Blue” employee parking pass — which costs more than $700 a year — is nothing more than a license to hunt for a parking space, many nurses, house officers and other employees arrive by 6 a.m. to snag a spot and catch a nap in their cars until their shifts start.

Resident doctors and dentists, meanwhile, often visit the hospital and one or more clinic sites during a typical workday. When parking is a nightmare, that means precious minutes — or hours — are wasted driving around looking for a space instead of seeing patients. Is that any way to run a hospital?

To be clear, as elected leaders of unions representing nurses, resident doctors and dentists at Michigan Medicine, we’re glad to see our hospitals and clinics grow and expand. Our members are deeply committed to providing quality health care, and it’s great to see the University offering more services in more places to more people.

A new, 264-bed, state-of-the-art hospital tower sounds terrific. The building, however, won’t take care of people by itself. To remain a great hospital, U-M needs great doctors, nurses, technicians and support staff. But you can’t attract top people with miserable working conditions. 

Can a nurse who has to nap in their car before starting work really deliver top quality care? Can hospital staff do their best when a 12-hour shift stretches to 16 hours or more because of a two- or three-hour commute in each direction?  

There are currently nearly 29,000 Michigan Medicine employees, but only 10,000 parking spaces on the medical campus. Those spaces serve patients, visitors and employees. The new hospital tower will add about 1,600 new employees, along with more patients. So, when University officials brag about adding 1,000 new parking spaces next year, the math just doesn’t add up.

The problem isn’t just that we don’t have enough spaces. It’s that University administrators — who have privileged “Gold” passes allowing them to park steps away from their offices — seem to have no idea what’s needed to meet the needs of a facility that operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. 

Not everyone can park next to the hospital or clinic where they work. But shouldn’t administrators of a university with an $11.9 billion endowment be able to keep remote parking lots well-maintained and well-lit for the safety of employees who work shifts around the clock?

Of course they should — but they don’t. They also have failed to provide enough shuttle buses to get workers to and from remote lots in a reasonable time frame. Thankfully, there’s progress on that front: After months of employee complaints, Michigan Medicine has announced that more shuttle buses will be coming online, for exclusive use by health service employees. 

It’s not as though we didn’t see these problems coming. Parking has been a terrible problem at U-M hospitals for decades. We knew it would get worse when administrators first announced a plan last March to convert an onsite employee lot to more convenient parking for patients (which patients need and deserve). Our unions immediately asked to negotiate about how this plan would be implemented, as part of our responsibility to bargain over working conditions. University administrators said no. We asked for information about parking pass utilization for all employees and executives. Again, University administrators said no.

No wonder the frustration boiled over in October, with hospital workers chanting and carrying signs outside the groundbreaking for the new hospital tower. We’re sorry if we intruded on a celebration for major donors and blue-chip guests, but we’ve got a job to do: taking care of patients. To do it properly, we need safe, accessible parking so we can get to work on time. 

This issue isn’t going away — and we’ll keep making noise until the University gets it right.

Katie Oppenheim, RN, is chair of the U-M Professional Nurses Council and Victoria Hoch, MD, is president-elect of the House Officers Association and a resident physician in Emergency Medicine. They can be reached at katie.oppenheim@minurses.org or rtarter@med.umich.edu.