Markey legislation would invest in helping hospitals deal with climate crisis

Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton.

Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield.

Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By MADDIE FABIAN

Staff Writer

Published: 08-28-2023 5:46 PM

In making a pitch for a new comprehensive health program for the country nearly 78 years ago, President Harry S. Truman said to Congress, “With the help of federal funds, it should be possible to meet deficiencies in hospital and health facilities so that modern services — for both prevention and cure — can be accessible to all the people.”

Truman’s call to action would ultimately lead to the construction of one-third of American hospitals and expanded health care to those who needed it most. For Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, Truman’s call to action holds as true today as it did back then — only the stakes now are related to health care and the climate crisis.

“Health systems are meant to be a port in the storm, but they cannot be if they don’t have the infrastructure to protect us now and in the future,” Markey said in introducing legislation that would provide funding to do just that.

The legislation, “Granting Resources for Eliminating Emissions Now (GREEN) in Hospitals Act,” would put $105 billion toward reviving a New Deal-era program aimed at updating health facilities in the face of climate change.

Markey touted the legislation during a visit to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield earlier this month. In a statement, he said the act is a step toward recognizing that “climate justice is health justice.”

The legislation comes during a summer of record-breaking rainfall, heat waves and wildfire smoke. The impacts of climate change are felt across the globe, and the health care industry is no exception.

With worsening air quality and higher temperatures causing higher rates of heat stroke and asthma, among other health issues, hospitals are left to treat an increased number of patients.

At the same time, the health care sector is responsible for around 8.5% of U.S. carbon emissions, the leading cause of climate change, according to the National Academy of Medicine.

Local hospitals react

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As health centers like Baystate Health and Cooley Dickinson Hospital grapple with the climate crisis, they are finding ways to reduce their environmental footprint and make their facilities more resilient to extreme weather events. Both institutions have created environmental teams to address the causes and effects of climate change.

“We’re seeing an influx in visits to the Emergency Department for a variety of things like Lyme disease from increases in the tick population, and we’re seeing heat stroke, and asthmatic-related cases due to air quality,” said Ariana Walker, sustainability and energy coordinator at Baystate Health, which operates the hospital in Greenfield. “We are the hub for the community, and making sure that we’re doing the front-end work to mitigate those visits [to the ER] is going to be huge.”

Funds proposed in Markey’s GREEN Hospitals Act are crucial, “as it empowers hospitals to implement vital adaptations that enhance their capacity to withstand extreme weather occurrences and pandemics, while simultaneously reducing their reliance on non-renewable energy sources,” Adam Bagni, Cooley Dickinson’s director of external communications, said in a statement.

The approach to climate resiliency is twofold. On one hand, it requires forward-thinking mitigation work and care for patients who are facing the health impacts of climate change. On the other hand, hospitals are working to reduce their own environmental impact so as not to further contribute to the root problem of a changing climate.

Protecting public health

A study by the Harvard Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment found that 81% of surveyed clinical staff reported that their clinics had experienced disruption due to extreme weather in the past three years. However, just 20% of those staff said that their clinic was “very resilient” to extreme weather.

At Baystate, becoming more resilient and reducing health impacts involves a combination of education and advocacy work within the health care community.

“We’re really just getting this at the forefront of people’s minds so that it is something they think about in their day-to-day positions and their career,” Walker said. “A lot of the on-the-ground work … has been really bridging that gap of planetary health and human health.”

As part of that effort, Baystate holds internal workshops for different scenarios, using the Massachusetts Climate Change Assessment. The assessment identifies by region the potential impacts of climate change through 2100, including infrastructure issues, changing disease patterns and extreme weather.

Based on that information, medical professionals at Baystate sit around a table and are presented with different scenarios, such as an increase in lightning strikes.

The team then discusses in depth the potential impacts on the health system, and “thinks outside of the box” to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats as they relate to that specific issue, according to Walker.

“We’re kind of taking all those instances and really workshopping every avenue in order to be prepared behind the scenes,” Walker said.

“This component of resiliency planning is stuff that we might already have planned for, but we didn’t necessarily equate it to the concept of climate change,” she added. “All hospitals have disaster plans. … That was born out of the understanding that health systems are typically the anchor network of a community.”

Cooley Dickinson also has a team focusing on sustainability issues and resiliency planning. The committee, colloquially referred to as the “Green Team,” works together to generate new knowledge on links between human health and the environment.

The team also engages in outreach efforts to educate residents on how they can live and work sustainably in their own lives.

Reducing environmental footprints

As for reducing the hospital’s environmental output, the Green Team at Cooley Dickinson has worked to convert all lighting to LED, led efforts to recycle and reduce use of certain materials, and donate and compost food when possible.

The team also focuses on other projects to reduce the hospital’s carbon footprint, including hosting an annual tree planting and examining solar power opportunities.

Cooley Dickinson falls under the umbrella of the Mass General Brigham system, which signed onto the Biden administration’s Health Care Sector Climate Pledge, a commitment to reduce emissions by 50% by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Baystate signed onto the same pledge.

“We want to make sure that our buildings are becoming as efficient as possible, and that we’re reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, whilst also still expanding our services as a health system,” Walker said.

For Baystate, that commitment involves a set of “low-hanging fruit projects,” like electrification of heating and cooling systems, replacing end-of-life technology with modern equipment that fits sustainability goals, and lighting studies.

“What’s great is a lot of these concepts are not novel,” Walker said.

She added there are also financial incentives for making sustainable changes. For instance, Baystate used the Inflation Reduction Act to get sustainable technologies including a 2-megawatt battery, which allows for planned stored energy during times of a strained utility grid.

“We’re talking about potentially an upfront increased cost,” Walker said, but the operation is ultimately looking at “long-term savings.”

While the health care system makes progress on concrete sustainability efforts like electrification, Walker said there are still “larger-ticket items that there’s not a technological solution for right now.”

“Technologies might exist, but their capacity and the size of which systems they can replace does not match up to the size of a health system,” she said, adding that machinery like heat pumps are a solution for smaller operations, but the thermal load of a hospital is too large to be replaced by heat pumps.

That’s where Markey’s GREEN Hospitals Act might help.

“We’re talking about some sort of incentive program that would promote this technology in the marketplace, and with that comes the creation of new manufacturers and different developers in the room,” Walker said. “We talk about being able to shift and fund this green economy. That’s where I think Sen. Markey is going with this.”

And by the time the legislation is approved, more advanced technologies might already be available for hospitals to take advantage of.

“Support and approval and being able to finance these technologies is huge,” Walker said. “Just like everyone else, we’re constrained with capital funding and, primarily, just keeping the lights on and the house running is always a priority.

“It would be huge to be able to apply and get funding,” she added, “and be able to run with a lot more of these more macro concepts.”

Maddie Fabian can be reached at mfabian@gazettenet.com or on Twitter @MaddieFabian.