Patient parking can tax patience VA, other hospitals turn to valet service to address headaches

Motorists look for parking spaces at the Ralph H. Johnson Medical Center on Tuesday. People will circle the parking lot until a space opens up.

Army veteran David Minton drove 55 miles from his home in Walterboro to the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center for a urology appointment in August.

Instead of circling the hospital’s parking lot for an available space, he valet-parked his car, a free service that the VA and other hospitals on the peninsula offer patients.

“It’s like Grand Central Station trying to ride around here trying to find a parking space,” Minton said.

Even the VA’s website warns, “Parking at the main facility is very limited.”

So Minton saw his doctor, walked out of the hospital to retrieve his car, handed his ticket to the valet attendant — and ended up waiting more than an hour and a half outside before it was returned.

“I’m aggravated now. I’m ready to get out of here,” Minton said. “They should have done something with this 20 years ago. It’s ridiculous.”

A new parking garage, which hasn’t been built yet, will add more than 800 spaces to the VA Medical Center campus over the next several years. For now, there are 1,015 surface parking spaces at the VA, only 237 of which are reserved for patients.

The new garage, which will be located behind the main hospital, will bring the total number of available spaces to about 1,800. Construction on the first phase is expected to begin next year.

“We’re very concerned about our patients being able to find parking,” said Robert Gard, acting assistant director of the VA Medical Center in Charleston.

But the promise of more parking in the future isn’t much help to the patients who are having problems parking now.

“Last time, I had such a hard time finding a spot,” said Kim Stewart, of Goose Creek, who drove her husband to the VA last month for a colonoscopy.

Like Minton, the Stewarts decided to valet the car before the appointment, but they had to wait outside more than half an hour afterward to get it back. “We’re beginning to see it’s a problem,” she said.

“That is not the norm,” Gard said. “We’re parking approximately 500-plus cars per week for our patients, and we’re doing so in a timely manner. We’ve gotten many, many compliments from the patients in the improvement in the valet services since the new valet started.”

The VA Medical Center signed a contract with Ambassadors Plus this year for its valet services, the same company the Medical University of South Carolina uses to valet park cars for its patients, according to the vendor’s website.

VA spokeswoman Tonya Lobbestael said cars are supposed to be returned to customers within 15 minutes.

“I reviewed their customer service data for July which demonstrated this standard was met 95 percent of the time which is very good,” Lobbestael wrote in a email.

All three peninsula hospitals — MUSC, Roper and the VA — use valet services to facilitate parking, because space for cars is in such short supply downtown.

Parking is so limited, in fact, that valet drivers for the VA Medical Center park patients’ cars at the Holiday Inn Charleston-Riverview on the other side of the Ashley River.

At MUSC, more than 1,000 employees and students must park every day near The Citadel and take a shuttle to campus.

But a solution, at least for Johnson Medical Center patients and employees, is in sight, said Jeff Sage, the hospital’s chief of engineering.

At least 300 new spaces will be available in the first phase of the new garage, sometime in the spring of 2015.

That project will cost about $9 million, two-thirds of which will be spent on the garage’s foundation, Sage said. The remaining 500 spaces will be available when the garage is completed.

He said the VA is expected to award a bid to design and construct the project on Oct. 1.

MUSC and Roper Hospital already operate several parking garages used by employees and patients in the vicinity of their hospitals.

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.