The assistant U.S. secretary of health called on health systems to tackle climate change, saying it’ll improve health outcomes and can help hospitals lower their own costs.
Rachel Levine urged hospital leaders to view climate change as more than an existential threat in the future.
Levine, the assistant U.S. secretary for health, said climate change is damaging public health today. Health systems need to curb their own emissions, she said.
“As leaders in the medical field, this has to be one of our primary concerns now, and in the foreseeable future,” Levine said Monday.
Appearing via video, Levine addressed the American Hospital Association Leadership Summit Monday.
The healthcare industry has garnered increased criticism over its own contributions to climate change. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., sent a letter to leading hospital systems earlier this year asking them to outline what they are doing to reduce emissions.
The medical field is responsible for 8.5% of America’s carbon emissions, Levine noted.
The Biden administration has called on healthcare systems to reduce their emissions and pollutants. Some systems are stepping up.
More than 60 hospitals and healthcare groups pledged to reach President Biden’s call for healthcare organizations to cut emissions by 50% by 2030.
Levine, who has been one of the leaders of the Biden administration’s efforts on climate change, credited hospitals with taking positive steps. Hospitals are making “real advances in reducing the carbon footprint,” she said.
“It is so important for us to do everything we can to change how we operate,” Levine said.
Extreme weather has threatened hospitals systems in the past. Levine pointed to Bellevue Hospital being forced to evacuate its patients due to flooding from Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
In her conversations with healthcare leaders across the country, Levine said doctors have talked about the impact of extreme weather on seniors, and the toll on mental health. For those without air conditioning, extreme heat poses serious health risks, she said.
Hospitals can take meaningful steps to reduce pollutants, including using anesthesia that is less harmful to the environment.
Levine noted that reducing packaging can allow health companies to ship more goods in fewer trips. “A lot of the climate-friendly steps aren’t costing you money over the long term,” she said. “They’re saving you money.”
“The more money you’re going to save and the better you’re going to be able to take care of patients and communities,” she said.
Health systems must think holistically about the problem of climate change, including the suppliers they use, transportation and food, she said.
Rick Pollack, president of the American Hospital Association, said the hospital industry is committed to reducing its environmental impact. He praised Levine’s leadership, as well as her understanding that some health systems were at different stages on the journey of reducing emissions.
The effort must include all stakeholders, including all the companies that contribute to the hospital supply chain, Pollack said.
The hospital association also views reducing emissions from hospitals as part of the effort to close disparities in healthcare outcomes, since disadvantaged communities often are at greater risk of health complications due to pollution.
“Climate change and health equity are interconnected,” Pollack said.
Health groups denounced a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month that found the Environmental Protection Agency lacks the authority to utilize the Clean Air Act to enforce limits on emissions from power plants, a major contributor to climate change.
Some analysts also said the ruling could set a troubling precedent to restrict the authority of other federal government agencies, including those regulating the health sector.