Congressional report outlines what providers are doing on climate

Most said they direct some resources to climate change. The healthcare industry faces increasing scrutiny of its environmental impact.

Hospitals are facing increased pressure to reduce their environmental impact, and a new congressional report offers more perspective on the actions of some healthcare systems.

House Ways and Means Committee chair Richard Neal, D-Mass., has urged health systems to share how they are reducing their environmental damage. Neal sent a letter to hospital systems earlier this year asking what they were doing to reduce emissions.

Based on this request for information, the committee released a report last week detailing how hospitals are being affected by climate change and their own efforts to reduce pollutants.

“There is very limited research into how extreme weather events are already disrupting healthcare, or how emissions from our healthcare system are exacerbating the climate crisis,” Neal said in a statement. “As our nation faces this existential threat, the health system must be part of the solution.”

The report provided some disturbing insights.

According to the report, an estimated 98,000 American deaths are attributed to emissions from the healthcare industry.

Between 2000 and 2017, 114 hospital evacuations in the US were linked to climate emergencies. More than half involved the evacuation of over 100 patients, the report said. In Louisiana, 843 nursing home patients had to be evacuated in Hurricane Ida.

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The climate crisis is costly for healthcare systems. The report estimates the annual cost of air pollution and the climate crisis to the country’s healthcare system at $820 billion.

Hospital and health officials are increasingly concerned about the impact of climate change, the report said.

“Regardless of their role in the U.S. healthcare system and the populations they serve, providers reported an increasing risk that is likely to only get worse as the effects of global warming exacerbate extreme weather patterns,” the report said.

The House Committee received responses from 63 health organizations, including hospitals, nursing homes, community health centers and trade groups. Fourteen of these organizations were labeled “climate innovators” in the report for their sustainability efforts.

About half of the responding health organizations (31 out of 63) indicated that they have at least one tool to measure their carbon footprint of their own emissions and indirect emissions related to the purchase of heat or electricity. Eighteen health groups included emission estimates in their responses.

(CommonSpirit Health’s Shelly Schlenker spoke with Chief Healthcare Executive about how hospitals can improve their sustainability in this video. The story continues below.)

More than half of those surveyed (37 out of 63) said they had experienced five or more climate events in the last five years. Costs varied, with respondents saying the financial impact ranged from $28,000 to more than $22 million.

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Critics say the healthcare industry has lagged behind other industries in terms of reporting and reducing its environmental impact. More than 90% of companies in the S&P 500 produce annual sustainability reports.

Health systems reported adopting various strategies to reduce emissions, including recycling, increased use of renewable energy, virtual meetings, and other steps.

Most health systems (47 out of 63) reported having allocated at least some resources to address climate change. About half (34 out of 63) have engaged employees, the report said.

According to federal officials, the healthcare industry is responsible for 8.5% of America’s carbon emissions. Hospitals are under pressure from all fronts.

Alongside Congress, President Biden’s administration is urging hospitals and healthcare systems to do better. The White House said this summer that 61 health systems have committed to meeting the Biden administration’s call for health organizations to cut emissions by 50% by 2030.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services Rachel Levine, a key figure in the U.S. government’s efforts on climate change and health, urged health-care leaders to reduce emissions during the American Hospital Association’s leadership summit in July. “As a leader in the medical space, this must be one of our primary concerns now and for the foreseeable future,” said Levine.

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Increasingly, healthcare systems are also receiving more inquiries from their boards and lenders about how they are working to improve their sustainability, hospital leaders said.

Hospital systems should work to reduce emissions and pollutants because doing so will improve the health of their communities, the report said. The House Panel report also finds that healthcare systems can save money by reducing emissions and spending less on energy.

“Healthcare system leaders in the US have also emerged and are providing a clear business case for the transition to more sustainable operations,” the report said.

The report gives some examples of health systems and how some of their actions have saved money and aimed at curbing emissions.

  • Ascension joined a federal initiative to reduce energy use and saved $96 million between 2017 and 2021.
  • Kaiser Permanente built a solar power plant on site. Since 2013, Kaiser has saved more than $19 million by improving its energy efficiency.
  • Boston Medical Center entered into an agreement to purchase solar energy
  • Intermountain Healthcare has installed more than 80 electric vehicle charging stations.

The full House Ways and Means Committee report is here. The results are divided into five parts.

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