NHS hospitals made a record £174 million in the last year from charging patients, visitors, and staff for car parking, an investigation has found.
Hospitals across England took £174,526,970 in 2016/17, up six per cent compared to the year before when £164.2m was raised, according to data collected by the Press Association.
The Liberal Democrats have branded the charges 'a tax on sickness'.
Some 120 NHS trusts across England were asked to give figures on parking charges and fines under Freedom of Information Laws, with 111 responding.
Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which sparked anger by hiking prices by an average of almost 55 per cent in May 2016, and axed free parking for Blue Badge holders earlier this year, brought in £1.662m in 2016/17, up from £1.26m in 2015/16, and £917,000 in 2013/14.
It also raised £9,000 in both 2016/17 and 2015/16 through parking fines.
Deputy chief executive Tim Bennett said: “Our prices are in line with the majority of other hospitals and we have to stress that all money collected from car parking goes back into patient care.
“The trust has invested substantially in improving car parking facilities in recent years with the new multi-storey car park.
"This was a huge investment by the trust that was undertaken to improve the hospital experience for patients and visitors but did come at a substantial cost in terms of building the facility and its ongoing running costs.
“While charges have increased we have undertaken an awareness campaign to highlight that parking concessions are available, including free parking for haematology or oncology patients undergoing regular treatment or attending appointments, free parking for carers or relatives of patients who have been in hospital for more than two weeks and free parking for three relatives of a dying patient. ‘’
Visitors to the hospital, in Whinney Heys Road, were left shocked by last year's price rise, which saw the minimum fee rise from £1.40 to £2.50.
Bosses said the income would be used to pay off £11m owed for the building of a multi-storey car park opened in 2014, and said the charges remained comparative to other hospitals.
But critics accused them of 'milking the sick and distressed'.
Blackpool South's Labour MP Gordon Marsden previously said: "We all know hospital trusts are under extreme pressure at the moment and my belief is the government bears considerable responsibility for that.
“Nevertheless, these increases are extremely steep, particularly the shorter time periods at just under 80 per cent for up to two hours, and I would be extremely interested to know how widely the chief executive and her officers consulted before making this decision.”
And in June, hospital bosses were further accused of 'attacking the most vulnerable people in society' by charging Blue Badge holders to park.
The hospital said the decision to make disabled people pay was 'not taken lightly', claiming the cash will be used to fund patient care.
But Derek Hudson, who sits on Preesall Town Council and is a former car park manager at the hospital, said at the time 'the people who sit in offices number crunching' should be axed first.
He added: "The lunatics have taken over the asylum. The board of the trust should reconsider completely because they are attacking the most vulnerable people in society."
The hospital's deputy chief executive Tim Bennett blamed the 'challenging financial environment' for the charge's introduction, which saw disabled patients and visitors hit with a minimum fee of £2.50, and said the cash will be pumped back into protecting 'front-line services and staffing'.
He said the decision was ‘an extremely difficult one’, and added: “It is also essential to ensure fairness and equality for all patients including those who are not Blue Badge holders but currently pay parking charges.”
A hospital spokesman previously said profit from its car parking charges was used to 'maintain and improve' the car parks, and 'reinvested in patient care'.
Liberal Democrat health spokesman Norman Lamb said: "The vast sums of money that hospitals are making from parking charges reveal the hidden cost of healthcare faced by many patients and their families.
"Hospital car park charges amount to a tax on sickness, with people who are chronically ill or disabled bearing the brunt.
"All hospitals should be following the national guidelines to make sure that patients, relatives, and NHS staff are not unfairly penalised."
Shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, said: "Hospital parking charges are an entirely unfair and unnecessary burden, which disproportionately affect the most vulnerable people using our health service.
"Even Jeremy Hunt has described this outrageous practice as a 'stealth tax', and yet Tory underfunding of our NHS has resulted in hospitals and private companies extracting record fees from patients and staff.
"It was extremely disappointing that the Budget offered no solution whatsoever to this burgeoning problem.
"Labour will abolish car parking charges and scrap this needless strain on already worried families."
Rachel Power, chief executive of the Patients Association, said the current state of NHS finances meant it was sometimes hard to blame hospitals for trying to find money.
But she said that did not make the current situation acceptable.
She added: "For patients, parking charges amount to an extra charge for being ill.
"The increase in the number of trusts who are charging for disabled parking is particularly concerning.
"Patients who require disabled parking may have little choice but to access their care by car, and may need to do so often. Targeting them in this way feels rather cynical.
"The increase in parking fines is also worrying.
"Hospital appointments are often delayed or last longer than expected, so even if you pay for parking you could end up being fined if your ticket runs out."
Lucy Schonegevel, public affairs manager at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: "Frequent trips to the hospital are unavoidable when you've been diagnosed with cancer, or caring for someone who has.
"People are having to travel to receive life-saving treatment and public transport isn't always an option.
"Vulnerable people, such as those living with cancer, shouldn't have to bear the financial burden of extortionate car parking fees.
"We feel more needs to be done by hospital trusts in England to follow the guidance set by the Department of Health and provide concessionary parking for cancer patients and their carers, including free and reduced parking charges or caps."
A Department of Health spokesman said: "Patients and families should not have to deal with the added stress of complex and unfair parking charges.
"NHS organisations are locally responsible for the methods used to charge, and we want to see them coming up with flexible options that put patients and their families first."
Do I qualify for free parking at the hospital – and what should I do?
Parking concessions are available, including £3 per day parking for parents of child patients for the first two weeks of their stay and free afterwards, free parking for haematology or oncology patients undergoing regular treatment or attending appointments, free parking for carers or relatives of patients who have been in hospital for more than two weeks, and free parking for three relatives of a dying patient. Patients on benefits may also be able to claim their money back.
Those eligible should contact the ward manager or nurse in charge, who will provide a form to be handed in at the car parking office, where they can then get a concessionary permit.
How much money did other Lancashire hospitals bring in?
East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs hospitals in Burnley, Blackburn, Accrington, Clitheroe, and Pendle
£100,021 in 2016/17 (has PFI contracts)
£100,021 in 2015/16
£55,102 in 2013/14
It does not charge disabled people to park.
Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which runs hospitals in Preston and Chorley
£2,263,000 in 2016/17
£2,218,000 in 2015/16
Parking fines £7,920 in 2016/17, £11,100 in 2015/16
It will charge disabled people to park 'in the near future'.
Which hospital trusts have the most expensive car parking charges?
Some NHS trusts offer free parking, while others charge as much as £4 for a one-hour stay.
Here is a list of the most expensive trusts in England for a one-hour visit:
:: Royal Surrey County Hospital, Guildford £4
:: Hereford County Hospital: £3.50
:: Bristol Royal Infirmary £3.40
:: Northampton General £3.20
:: St Thomas' Hospital, London £3.20
:: Southend University Hospital £3.10
:: Royal Free, London £3
:: Basildon Hospital, Essex £3
:: Whittington Hospital, London (after 5pm) £3
:: Chelsea & Westminster Hospital, London £3
:: Aintree University Hospital £3
:: Luton and Dunstable £3
:: Mid Cheshire Hospitals £3
:: Mid Essex £3
:: University Hospital of South Manchester £3
:: St James's, Leeds £2.90
What are the current car parking charges at Blackpool Victoria Hospital?
:: £2.50 for up to two hours, up from £1.40
:: £3 for between two and three hours, up from £1.90
:: £4 for between three and six hours, up from £2.30
:: £6 for between six and 24 hours, up from £5.50
At Preston and Chorley hospitals, parking is free for 30 minutes, then charged at £3 per day, Lancashire Teaching Hospitals said.
Weekly permits are sold at £10 and there are a range of exemptions.
What has the government said and done about car parking charges at hospitals?
Charging for parking at hospitals has proven to be a political hot potato in recent years, with Labour accusing the previous Coalition government of scrapping plans to ban the fees.
Instead, guidelines were issued, leading to concessionary charges at trusts across the country, though parking policies are still set by individual NHS trusts.
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt pledged to take action against ‘rip-off charges’ after facing pressure from Tory backbenchers.
He said: “Patients and families shouldn’t have to deal with the added stress of unfair parking charges.
“These clear ground rules set out our expectations, and will help the public hold the NHS to account for unfair charges or practices.”
The Department of Health guidance, updated in October 2015, says trusts should consider ‘pay-on-exit’ schemes so drivers only pay for the time they have used, which the new multi-storey car park at Blackpool features.
Trusts should make sure the charges are ‘well publicised’, it said, and they are responsible for the actions of private contractors.
If a visitor or patient overstays through no fault of their own – if treatment took longer than planned, for example, or when staff have to work beyond their scheduled shift – then trusts are expected to waive any fines, it added.