Hospitals to face new emission goals, and potential penalties for noncompliance, under new HHS office

The Kigali agreement curbs greenhouse gas emissions
Hospitals could soon be required to meet certain greenhouse gas emission targets under a newly established Department of Health and Human Services office. (NicoElNino)

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) aims to roll out new requirements for hospitals and health systems to cut greenhouse gas emissions and could potentially levy penalties to facilities for failing to do so.

HHS announced Monday the creation of the new Office of Climate Change and Health Equity tasked with taking on the health impacts of climate change and its effects such as extreme weather. The new office plans to roll out specific goals for emissions levels at hospitals at a later date.

HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra told reporters that the agency would like to work with hospitals to tackle their climate change impact, but he did not shy away from using any existing authorities to force hospitals to comply.

“We will use every tool at our disposal,” he said on a call with reporters Monday. “We will use every authority to its greatest advantage because it is time to tackle climate change now.”

Becerra said that the only way that the federal government can impose some type of penalty “would be if the federal government has the authority to do so.”

He didn’t say if that authority includes cutting Medicare payments to hospitals and health systems that don’t meet carbon goals, but he cautioned that the goal is to work with stakeholders to “be as transparent as we can.”

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“I am not interested in sitting around and waiting,” Becerra said. “We don’t have time to sit around. The west is burning. Louisiana is being pummeled. Clearly, the extremes are hurting Americans and our health.”

The agency has had conversations with hospitals and health systems on the issue and is working on specific emission levels that could be imposed on hospitals, said HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Rachel Levine, M.D., on the call.

The new office will also be responsible for identifying communities that are especially vulnerable to extreme weather hazards caused by climate change and provide training to create a climate and health workforce.

“I think this office will be small but mighty and will have impacts across the department,” Levine said.

The creation of the new office comes as President Joe Biden has called for the entire economy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Levine said that the U.S. health sector is responsible for 8.5% of the country’s carbon emissions.