04/09/2013 05:52 EDT | Updated 06/09/2013 05:12 EDT

Veterans' Free Parking In Calgary Revoked By Alberta Health Services


CALGARY - An Alberta Health Services executive is defending a plan to phase out a program that provides discounted parking to military veterans at Calgary hospitals.

The program, which was originally implemented by the old Calgary Health Region, sees parking passes sold at a reduced rate to the Calgary Poppy Fund, which is a service branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.

The passes are then lent out to veterans and their spouses for use at Calgary-area hospitals.

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Alberta Health Services says special passes can still be issued for those individuals unable to pay for parking or for veterans who regularly drive their old comrades to hospital.

"We're not trying to be heartless and it's not about the veterans. It's about giving equity to everybody," said Penny Rae, senior vice-president for capital management with the health board, the delivery arm of care in the province.

Calgary is the only city in Alberta that offers the passes and Rae said the sad fact is hospital parking now has to be 100 per cent self-supporting.

"There are no health-care dollars that are allowed to go to parking. I still need to be able to cover the costs of the parkades that are there and we've got parkades we need to build," she said. "It's not a grab for cash. It's about making sure we're being equitable."

The executive director of the Royal Canadian Legion in Alberta said she was "surprised" and "disappointed" by the move.

"These folks put their lives on the line for us. It's just a small token," said Tammy Wheeler.

"It's huge. It's expensive for parking and a lot of times they're there for extended periods of time. They don't have the money to spend on parking, especially for the widows and people like that who are visiting friends."

The Opposition Wildrose party called the move "ludicrous" and an "insult" to Canadian Forces veterans.

"Here in Alberta we seem to not acknowledge their existence. This is the wrong way to go about things, this is the wrong decision and the optics of this are terrible," said Kerry Towles, the Wildrose seniors issues critic.

"Do we really think that charging more for parking for the people who can least afford it is the answer to proper health care? You pay out Alberta Health Services executive bonuses because you say you have a contractual obligation but on the other side you say we're going to pull the discounted parking passes."

Rae said Alberta Health Services knew that the optics of such a move would be bad and she's already been facing a backlash from angry veterans.

"People get more emotional about parking than I've seen them get about anything else," Rae said. "I've had a couple of veterans today send me the nastiest emails. Apparently I'm not worth the air I breathe, but what are you going to do?"