On being pinged parking penalties at hospital, Jonathan Milne saw a chance to champion change – but says his naïve hopes were dashed in an unexpected way.

Opinion: When your seven-year-old son is taken to hospital in an ambulance, pale and struggling to breathe, most caring parents would just be relieved to know they’re safe and well.

Me, I sensed a story.

I’m a journalist. We journalists like to think we should highlight injustice, speak truth to power and stand up for the vulnerable.

Our readers (judging by the feedback we get) would rather we stopped being such bloody pompous, meddling know-it-alls and just reported the news.

So this is a story of advocacy journalism, the law of unintended consequences – and why our readers may well be right!

This is also about point of view. It’s about where you stand – or specifically, where you park.

Just before Christmas, my son Gus had a sleepless night. His tummy hurt, he was wheezy. At about 5am, after talking with Healthline we made the decision to take him to the after hours centre, based at the nearby Ascot Hospital in Greenlane. 

My wife took him, while I stayed home with our two older sons, who were still sleeping and oblivious. At 7.20am my wife messaged me: “We’re going to Starship. Will need you to pick up the car at Ascot. Carpark is paid til 915. Ascot say we won’t get towed if we don’t get the car for a while.”

While she went with Gus in the ambulance, I woke the older boys, and got them dressed and breakfasted. We called an Uber to Ascot Hospital and searched the carpark out front for our car. It wasn’t there.

On seeking the advice of the receptionist, we discovered another big carpark out back. By this time, lines of cars stretched away towards Ellerslie racecourse. The two boys and I split up and, eventually, we found our car. As we drove out of the carpark sometime at 9.55am, there was no barrier arm, no evident signage warning us that we had just crossed a line into a murky morass of contractual non-compliance….

Ascot Hospital at Auckland’s Greenlane has hundreds of carparks for staff and visitors to the clinics on its site. Photo: Vital Healthcare

But let’s cut to the chase. After a couple of days on oxygen and inhalers, Gus was discharged. (He’s well, thanks for asking).

And, finally allowed out of red-lit Auckland, we travelled south to Wellington and Wairarapa to spend Christmas and New Year with family. On our return, in January, the neighbour dropped off the mail that she’d diligently collected for us. In there was a letter headlined in big bold capitals, MERCYASCOT CARPARK BREACH NOTICE.

It was dated December 20; it must have arrived sometimes around Christmas. The amount payable was $65, said LPR Enforcement Services Ltd, on behalf of MercyAscot hospitals. “If paid within 7 days of this letter the amount will be reduced to $50.” 

If it still remained unpaid on January 16 (less than a month after the parking offence) they would add a further “administration fee” of $20, nearly doubling the total payable from $50 to $85.

I spotted a high horse so, with little regard for what parking fees might be incurred for hitching horses, I mounted it. I wrote to both LPR and MercyAscot that not only was the initial parking fee pretty stink when my son and his mother had been forced to leave in an ambulance, but their penalties framework was clumsy, iniquitous and (essentially) Grinch-like.

“I note that the Government has decried so-called prompt payment discounts as exploitative, as nothing more than an additional fee imposed on those on low incomes, and has threatened to regulate industries that still use them,” I wrote, colourfully.

“In short, I believe the fine and the subsequent penalty fees are predatory, discriminate against the more economically vulnerable members of our community, and are unbecoming of a medical facility whose professional staff have ethical duties to their patients and community as well as obligations to their shareholders.”

As you may suspect, my family are not especially economically vulnerable – but there was a principle to uphold, right? This wasn’t about getting off my own parking fee; it was about championing those other families with sick kids in more straitened circumstances.

I should have known better. My inflated rhetoric has backfired on me before.

The power of words

I remember some years ago, when I worked for the NZ Herald, having a run-in with a faceless (and in my view, obstructive) communications adviser for a big government agency. When yet again he failed to deliver the information I’d sought, that I’d argued was a matter of public interest, I sent him an email. I wrote it early in the morning, just as it is when I’m writing this article.

Among other colourful questions and accusations, I asked him whether his mother was proud of the role he played in hindering public accountability. I questioned his professional diligence. I suggested that he might be reading this as he poured beer on his Weetbix. And as I got more and more fired up, I added more and more addresses to the CC line. His colleagues. His boss. The minister’s press secretary. The minister’s chief of staff. The minister….

And I sent it, without pausing to take a breath, without seeking the second opinion of a colleague.

The blowback came quickly. Two senior ministry executives flew to Auckland to discuss the email with my editor. Under threat of defamation action, I sent a written apology and our media organisation gave an assurance that all copies of the offending email would be deleted from the servers.

My written words backfired again a couple of years ago, shortly before I started this role. In transit back from Cook Islands to New Zealand, I wrote an article from my MIQ hotel about the health and safety precautions. I told how one of my sons had kicked a football out of the exercise yard. One of the MIQ security officers went after it and retrieved it for us, I wrote gratefully.

The day the article was published on Newsroom, we again went downstairs with our football – only to be stopped by the army officers in the lobby. The use of footballs and other throwing toys was no longer permitted in MIQ facilities, they told me, after some embarrassing media coverage …

I’d always believed that journalism could make a difference. But this certainly wasn’t the difference I’d hoped for.

Prompt payment discounts

So too, this time round, as I’ll explain. This month, LPR Enforcement Services wrote back to me promptly. They cancelled the parking fee – but initially at least, neither they nor MercyAscot responded to my request that they put an end to their “predatory” use of so-called prompt payment discounts and penalty fees.

These prompt payment discounts have a chequered history. Previously, they were widely used by utility companies like power retailers.

But Consumer NZ took up the cudgels, arguing convincingly that these were not really early payment discounts from higher power bills, but late payment penalties that blew out lower power bills. They were a masquerade. Essentially, they penalised those on lower incomes who did not have the disposable cash sitting round to pay every single bill immediately when it was demanded.

This was backed up by a 13-month Electricity Price Review, which reported back to the Government in 2019 saying energy hardship was one of the most pressing problems, and children were over-represented in households experiencing this hardship.

It found that prompt payment discounts disproportionately hurt low-income consumers, were confusing when customers tried to compare retailers’ prices, were often unrelated to the true cost of recovering an overdue bill, and were the single biggest factor distinguishing what consumers in the most deprived and least deprived areas paid.

It recommended the Government prohibit prompt payment discounts, but allow reasonable late payment fees that reflect the actual cost of recovering outstanding payments.

Energy Minister Megan Woods wrote to the power companies, urging them to cease the unfair use of these discounts, or face the big stick of government regulation.

This week, Consumer NZ chief executive Jon Duffy tells me that companies in a range of industries use prompt payment discounts to incentivise early payment.

“Companies benefit from the certainty quick payment brings and obviously get the benefit of using that money earlier, which can be significant in larger sectors with thousands of customers paying each month,” he says.

“Consumers supposedly receive a discount on their bill. Consumer NZ has previously expressed concern where prompt payment discounts are promoted by companies as being beneficial to consumers, but are, in reality, a slow payment penalty.

“As well as being misleadingly described, penalties of this nature disproportionately impact those with the lowest ability to pay, particularly where charges are unexpected or higher than anticipated. Consumers on fixed incomes like retirees or consumers in hardship should not have to pay more to receive the same services as others, just because their financial situation has less flexibility.”

Armed with this, I put on my journalist helmet and armour, mounted my high horse, and went into battle with MercyAscot and LPR Enforcement.

Show no Mercy

On being confronted by an email from Newsroom, MercyAscot finally responded. “First of all we are very sorry to hear that your son was unwell and needed urgent medical attention,” wrote chief executive Ian England. “We appreciate that it would have been a very stressful time for you.”

The privately-owned MercyAscot contracted LPR Enforcement Services to manage the car park at Ascot Hospital, he continued, a car park that was also used by other tenants like the after hours centre that my son had attended.

“Rather than having people end up paying $85, LPR Enforcement Services give people the option to pay $50 within seven days,” he wrote. “This process is not the same as the ‘prompt payment discounts’ that you refer to in your correspondence, and has been upheld by the Courts as fair and reasonable.”

In other words, imposing a $65 parking fee if one doesn’t pay immediately is widespread industry practice, he was arguing. This was not just MercyAscot, not just LPR, but the parking industry as a whole.

Challenged to provided evidence of the courts upholding this penalty process, he pointed to a 2015 NZ Herald article that reported another parking company, Tournament, defending how quick it was to impose $65 parking fees. Interviewed for that article seven years ago, Tournament’s general manager Rachel Valentine said the $65 fee reflected the average administrative cost of enforcing a parking fee. “The Disputes Tribunal has upheld the $40 and $25 as a fair and reasonable amount,” she said in that report.

The Disputes Tribunal ruling that MercyAscot, LPR and Tournament all rely on remains somewhat mysterious. Does it even exist?

Ministry of Justice staff were unable to locate the ruling, to determine whether it does actually endorse a $65 parking fee; there is no sign of it on the Disputes Tribunal’s online database. Even if it does exist, and even if it did uphold Tournament’s $65 fee as appropriate, there is no credible suggestion that it endorsed the practice of prompt payment discounts and penalties.

At Tournament, Rachel Valentine said she no longer had the ruling to hand, and declined to say whether the company now used prompt payment discounts.

Wilson Parking NZ is the country’s biggest parking company. Its public relations consultant Samantha Eng, from WE Worldwide in Melbourne, said it did not use prompt payment discounts.

But Richard Oliver, the technical director of LPR Enforcement Services, has responded. LPR is a small operator, managing only about 20 car parking sites, he said. 

“We started business about four years ago with the idea we would bring some credibility and decency to an industry that traditionally had not treated people very fairly,” he told me this morning.

“To that end we consider all appeals on their merits and often cancel notices as a result, like we did with yours. We also employ parking ambassadors who wander around some of our carparks helping people use the machines and find parking spaces. I’m not aware of any other operator that does this.

“This practice only adds cost and reduces the number of breach notices being issued so actually makes no sense other than to enhance our brand’s reputation. We believe being fair and reasonable is our point of difference and something our small client base really values.

“We are very grateful for you bringing to our attention how immediate discounted payments could be perceived, as the last thing we want to be seen is predatory or unfair.”

On the strength of the obscure and as yet unconfirmed Disputes Tribunal ruling, and prompted by my inquiries, LPR and MercyAscot have agreed to change their policy to get rid of prompt payment discounts, effective from yesterday.

Unfortunately, the outcome is the very opposite of the change I’d suggested in my first email. 

Rather than recognising that the $15 difference if one pays outside seven days is effectively a late payment penalty on top of a standard $50 fee, MercyAscot insists it is genuinely a discount on a standard $65 fee.

So, as I said earlier, it’s all about the point of view from which one looks at that $15 discrepancy. (There is no dispute that the $20 imposed another two weeks after that is a penalty fee).

And the change that MercyAscot and LPR have now made is not to get rid of the $15 “penalty”, so everyone pays a flat $50.

Instead, they’ve dispensed with the $15 “discount” – so now everyone must pay a flat $65, rising to $85 after three weeks.

My advocacy journalism for those less well-off families has provoked the hospital to effectively increase the parking penalty that families face if their child is taken to hospital. 

It’s a win to the beancounters at MercyAscot, and a defeat for journalism (or at least, my journalism). Perhaps it’s time for me to park my high horse, and just go back to reporting the news, plain and simple.

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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