The Urgent Need for Legislative Action: The Green New Deal for Health

The Urgent Need for Legislative Action: The Green New Deal for Health

The state of the healthcare system has become a frequent topic in the news, and it is not without reason. The industry is plagued by workforce shortages, with many healthcare professionals leaving their positions due to burnout. Additionally, the closure of 631 rural hospitals looms on the horizon, posing a significant threat to healthcare accessibility. As if these challenges weren’t enough, extreme weather events could potentially shut down one in 12 hospitals worldwide. In the United States alone, 90% of counties have experienced a weather disaster in the past decade, and 40% of Americans live in counties that faced climate disasters in 2021 alone. The severity of these issues necessitates urgent and impactful legislative solutions.

The Green New Deal for Health: A Comprehensive Approach

One legislative package that offers a promising solution is the Green New Deal for Health, spearheaded by Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.). As the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Subcommittee on Primary Health and Retirement Security, Sen. Markey aims to improve healthcare sustainability and support patients, clinicians, and communities. The Green New Deal for Health not only addresses the challenges facing the healthcare system but also tackles the health crises that disproportionately affect marginalized populations, including low-income individuals, immigrants, rural communities, and communities of color.

The urgency to prioritize climate action within the healthcare sector cannot be overstated. Currently, the sector is responsible for a staggering 8.5% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. The pollution generated by the healthcare industry carries severe consequences, equivalent to the harm caused by preventable medical errors. This air pollution is linked to a range of health conditions, including stillbirth, low birth weight, cardiovascular disease, cancer, pneumonia, asthma, dementia, and increased hospitalizations. Vulnerable populations, such as children, the elderly, pregnant individuals, low-income individuals, and communities of color, bear a disproportionate burden of these health risks.

Piecemeal Efforts: The Current State of Climate-Smart Healthcare

Efforts to advance climate-smart healthcare are already underway. The Joint Commission has developed voluntary sustainable healthcare certification standards in the United States, while international sustainability standards have also been established. In 2022, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) launched a voluntary climate pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve climate resilience in the health sector. Additionally, numerous state and local initiatives have been introduced. While these efforts are undoubtedly crucial, they suffer from being incomplete and unenforceable, allowing the industry to maintain the status quo.

Despite the pressing need to expand climate-smart efforts, the Green New Deal for Health has not garnered widespread attention. One potential reason for this is the name itself, which may not resonate with bipartisan support. Moreover, the initial Green New Deal introduced in 2019 may have dampened enthusiasm for launching another campaign with uncertain outcomes. As another contentious presidential election looms, conservative voices within health system administration may question large funding initiatives, similar to the Inflation Reduction Act. Building consensus around the Green New Deal for Health requires finding common ground and reframing the legislation’s purpose.

Reframing the Deal for Greater Appeal

One effective strategy for garnering support is to emphasize the economic benefits of the Green New Deal for Health. This approach draws parallels to President Obama’s successful 2009 stimulus package, which embedded climate legislation within an economic framework. By highlighting the economic advantages of investing in resilience upgrades and sustainability initiatives, health systems may be more inclined to embrace the legislation. One of the main impediments to such initiatives has been the upfront cost, which health systems often perceive as burdensome. However, by providing upfront funds, the Green New Deal for Health would alleviate financial strain and offer critical support to cash-strapped health systems.

To actualize its vision, the Green New Deal for Health allocates resources strategically. An estimated $100 billion would be directed towards modernizing, weatherizing, and reducing the environmental impact of health facilities through a revived New-Deal-era program. Furthermore, hazard pay for healthcare professionals caring for patients during and after disasters would be established, safeguarding both public health and the provision of care. An additional $10 billion would be dedicated to community planning grants and research on healthcare sustainability and resilience. Lastly, $9 billion would be invested in meeting the educational needs of healthcare professionals, ensuring they receive training to navigate a changing environment. These funds align with the ongoing calls for climate health education, emanating from medical students, professional associations, and relevant institutions.

Urgency for Immediate Action

While there has been a slight decline in U.S. emissions in recent years, it is far from enough to address the imminent threats of global warming and pollution. Comprehensive legislation that encompasses both healthcare facilities and the broader environmental context is crucial. By proactively protecting health and promoting resilience and sustainability, federal guidance can guide systemic change. To overcome obstacles and secure the necessary support, healthcare professionals, including physicians, nurses, and other stakeholders, must advocate vocally for the Green New Deal for Health. It is incumbent upon the healthcare industry to champion healthy, sustainable, and climate-resilient systems, for the sake of both current and future patients. The time has come to shine a spotlight on the Green New Deal for Health, as the well-being of our communities hinges upon our readiness to respond.

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