Hospitals and emissions: Congressional report outlines what providers are doing on climate change

Most said they are directing some resources to climate change. The health industry has faced growing scrutiny over its environmental impact.

Hospitals have faced increased pressure to reduce their environmental impact, and a new congressional report offers more perspective on what some health systems are doing.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., has been pressing health systems to share how they are reducing their harm to the environment. Neal sent a letter to hospital systems earlier this year asking them what they are doing to reduce emissions.

From that request for information, the committee released a report last week outlining how hospitals are being affected by climate change and their own actions to reduce pollutants.

“There has been very limited research examining how extreme weather events are already disrupting health care delivery or the ways in which emissions from our health care system are exacerbating the climate crisis,” Neal said in a statement. “As our nation confronts this existential threat, the health care system must be a part of the solution.”

The report produced some disturbing findings.

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

Between 2000 and 2017, 114 hospital evacuations in the U.S. are tied to climate emergencies. More than half involved the evacuation of over 100 patients, the report stated. In Louisiana, 843 nursing home patients had to be evacuated in Hurricane Ida.

The climate crisis is costly to health systems. The report estimated the annual cost of air pollution and the climate crisis on the nation’s healthcare system is $820 billion.

Hospital and health leaders are increasingly worried about the impact of climate change, the report stated.

“Regardless of their role in the U.S. healthcare system and the population they serve, providers told a story of increasing risk that will likely only get worse as the impacts of a warming globe exacerbate extreme weather patterns,” the report said.

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

Roughly half of the healthcare organizations that responded (31 of 63) said they have at least one tool to measure their carbon footprint of their own emissions and indirect emissions associated with buying heat or electricity. Eighteen healthcare groups included emission estimates in their responses.

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

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

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

The health systems said they are pursuing various strategies to reduce emissions, including recycling, more use of renewable energy, virtual meetings and other steps.

Most of the health systems (47 of 63) said they have directed at least some resources to climate change. Roughly half (34 of 63) have dedicated staff, the report stated.

The healthcare industry is responsible for 8.5% of America’s carbon emissions, federal officials say. Hospitals are getting pressure from all fronts.

In addition to Congress, President Biden’s administration is asking hospitals and healthcare systems to do better. The White House said this summer that 61 health systems pledged to reach the Biden administration’s call for healthcare organizations to cut emissions by 50% by 2030.

U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health Rachel Levine, a key player in the administration’s efforts on climate change and health, urged health system executives to reduce emissions during the American Hospital Association Leadership Summit in July. “As leaders in the medical field, this has to be one of our primary concerns now, and in the foreseeable future,” Levine said.

Increasingly, health systems are also getting more inquiries from their boards of directors and from lenders about how they are working to improve their sustainability, hospital leaders have said.

Hospital systems should work to reduce emissions and pollutants because it will improve the health of their communities, the report stated. The House panel’s report also states that health systems can save money by reducing emissions and spending less on energy.

“Health system leaders in the U.S. have also emerged, providing a clear business case for moving toward more sustainable operations,” the report stated.

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

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

The full House Ways and Means Committee report is here. The findings are broken into five parts.