Extreme weather derailing healthcare delivery across the country, costing millions: report

A majority of health systems have experienced extreme weather events such as wildfires or hurricanes within the past five years, though just over a third say they’ve implemented a climate action or preparedness plan for any future weather-based disruptions, according to a congressional report.

Sixty-three provider groups responding to a request for information reported an average 4.2 such events over the past half-decade, the costs of which ran them anywhere from $28,000 to $22 million in facility damage or service interruptions.

These numbers “paint a picture of a U.S. healthcare system only beginning to feel the damaging effects of climate-related weather events that will inevitably continue to disrupt operations across the continuum of care and exact a severe financial toll,” the House Ways and Means Committee wrote in a new five-part report compiling the responses, published Thursday.

Nearly three-quarters of respondents said they have dedicated “at least some resources” to address the climate crisis and just over half said they had dedicated staff working on the issue.

Dedicated resources were more common among multi-hospital systems and health systems than community health centers or other types of provider facilities, Congress found. There weren’t any differences in resource dedication reports based on geographic region, although respondents in urban areas more often than rural facilities said they were committing resources to the issue.

The findings follow a request for information sent out to health systems, dialysis companies, nursing home chains and community health centers by the House Ways and Means Committee starting in March. The request aimed to better understand the impact of extreme weather interruptions and characterize the healthcare sector's work toward cutting down carbon emissions.

The healthcare sector represents nearly a fifth of the nation’s gross domestic product and is responsible for 10% of the nation’s smog formation, 12% of acid rain, 9% of criteria air pollutants, 1% of stratospheric ozone depletion and 1% to 2% of carcinogenic and noncarcinogenic air toxins, according to data cited in the report.

“With U.S. GHG emissions rising by an estimated 6% between 2010 and 2018—resulting in the loss of 388,000 disability-adjusted life-years—all participants in the healthcare sector have important roles to play in addressing the climate crisis and environmental justice,” the committee wrote in the report.

The committee’s inquiry suggests a range of experience and progress among providers.

Thirty-one of the 63 respondents said they use at least one tool to measure emissions from their operations and purchased utilities. Ten out of 14 organizations deemed as “climate innovators” said they have or are in a good position to meet government-set sustainability goals (such as the White House’s 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030) while just 15 of the remaining 49 provider organizations said the same.

Of those working to meet sustainability goals, operational changes such as recycling or working groups were the most prevalent reported changes. These were followed by changes to building electrification, use of renewable energy and adoption of more sustainable transportation.

Seventeen of the organizations said they achieved measurable cost savings due to energy efficiency changes. At the same time, organizations cited internal resource scarcity and external financial barriers as the top roadblocks preventing implementation of emission reduction programs.

Respondents noted that the federal government will have key roles as “an arbiter, standard-setter and convener” to help organizations with early or established climate sustainability practices alike accelerate their efforts.

During a corresponding in-person hearing held Thursday, healthcare leaders reiterated to committee members the government’s major role in climate change leadership and—particularly among smaller organizations—the industry’s role for dedicated support.

“This climate change, the consequences of it, is unprecedented,” Parinda Khatri, Ph.D., CEO of Cherokee Health Systems in Tennessee, said during Thursday’s hearing. “As I listen to my colleagues [at this hearing], I absolutely agree: we need data, we need infrastructure support, we need expertise within our system. … We don’t have any bandwidth to take on [climate change]. Yet, we want to help keep our communities safe, we need help. … We will need additional resources to be able to do that.”