House committee chairman asks hospitals what they’re doing on climate crisis

Congressman Richard Neal sent a letter seeking information from some of America’s most prominent healthcare organizations. Critics say hospitals should be doing more to curb emissions.

A top member of Congress has sent a letter to 12 large healthcare organizations to find out what they’re doing to fight the climate crisis.

U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said he wants more information from health systems that have positioned themselves as leaders in addressing climate issues. He sent a letter and a request for information to the systems Thursday, March 24.

Hospitals have been facing growing pressure to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

“The impact of the climate crisis on health is well documented – from increasing rates of asthma in vulnerable communities, to an increase in deaths from extreme weather events, heat, infectious and vector-borne diseases, and compromised food supplies,” Neal, D-Mass., wrote in the letter accompanying the request.

“Yet, less attention has been paid to the fact that the health care industry as a whole is responsible for an estimated 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States and more than four percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions," he wrote. "If the global health sector were a country, it would be the fifth-largest emitter on the planet.”

The chairman sent the letter and request for information to some of the country's leading health systems: Boston Medical Center, Kaiser Permanente, Gundersen Health System, Mayo Clinic, HCA Healthcare, Cleveland Clinic, Hackensack Meridian Health, Henry Ford Health System, Intermountain Healthcare, Mt. Sinai Health System, Northwell Health, and Stanford Health Care.

The healthcare industry’s efforts to address climate change and reduce emissions have been inconsistent, Neal said in a news release accompanying the letter to the hospital systems.

In the letter, Neal asked the healthcare organizations to describe what they are doing to reduce emissions and about any of their future plans to reduce pollutants.

The letter asks if the systems have any dedicated staff assessing climate change issues or any working groups focused on climate change. Hospitals are asked if they have any sustainability targets to reduce their carbon footprint. Neal also requested the organizations to explain any climate-related disruptions to their operations, such as hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires, and if they have affected patients.

Neal also asked the systems to offer any recommendations on how the federal government can help healthcare organizations to address their climate impacts.

The health systems are asked to provide their responses by April 14.

Hospitals need to reduce their emissions as part of the government’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, U.S. Assistant Health Secretary Rachel Levine said in November.

“It’s critically important to the president’s goal of meeting the economy-wide greenhouse gas reductions by 2030 to deal with the health sector,” Levine said in a Nov. 4 forum organized by the Alliance for Health Policy.

It’s possible the health and human services department could use its regulatory power to spur hospitals to reduce emissions, Levine said last fall, but nothing has been decided. She said that federal officials “want to work with the health systems and we’re working to get buy-in.”

Some have criticized hospitals for not taking more aggressive steps to reduce their environmental impact.

Most healthcare organizations do not do robust sustainability reporting, researchers stated in an analysis published in the New England Journal of Medicine Catalyst, By comparison, more than 90% of the companies in the S&P 500 publish annual sustainability reports.

Most healthcare systems are ignoring the environmental damage they are doing, said Jodi Sherman, an associate professor of anesthesiology and epidemiology at Yale University and a co-author of the study.

“This is also a patient safety issue,” Sherman told Chief Healthcare Executive in a recent interview. “We are causing harm in how we deliver healthcare.”

Last fall, the National Academy of Medicine launched an effort aimed at “decarbonizing” the U.S. healthcare sector. The Biden administration and key healthcare leaders are part of the effort.

The House Ways and Means Committee maintains jurisdiction over tax policy and some key federal programs, including Medicare and Social Security.