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Health Care Leaders Recognize Climate Risk, Take Action

Climate change is putting our public health and health care facilities at risk, and the Administration is committing to support leaders in the health care industry as they take action.

Two years ago, as Hurricane Sandy swept over cities in the Northeast, many communities were unprepared to deal with the storm’s devastating consequences.  Hospitals and health care workers in New York City were overwhelmed as they struggled to accommodate the influx of patients.  As the generators failed at some hospitals, doctors, nurses, and emergency responders evacuated hundreds of patients by flashlight.  Months later hospitals were still struggling to readmit patients.  In total, health care facilities incurred $3.1 billion in damages from the disaster. 

Science tells us that we’re likely to face storms that are more frequent and severe in the future. These storms could cause more damage than ever before, and it will cost more taxpayer dollars to recover and rebuild. And it isn’t only storms; climate change also leads to rising sea levels, increased flood risk, and extreme temperatures, all of which can put our health care facilities - and our public health - at risk. For example, warmer temperatures spurred by carbon pollution can worsen smog, soot, and pollen levels, and trigger more asthma attacks and exacerbate other illnesses. And these kinds of impacts are most dangerous for populations that are already vulnerable, including children and the elderly.

Fortunately, leaders in the health care industry are recognizing this risk. They are leading the way to ensure our health care system is equipped to handle the health challenges presented by climate change, and to ready our hospitals and other health care facilities for the impacts of climate change.  And the Administration is committed to support them in this important work.

All over the country, American communities depend on hospitals to provide essential services – at all times and under every possible circumstance. That’s why today, as part of the President’s Climate Action Plan, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is releasing a voluntary climate resilience guide for health care providers, design professionals, policymakers, and others to promote continuity of care before, during, and after extreme weather events. The new guide addresses a wide range of health care facility vulnerabilities and identifies best practices that health care organizations can adopt to improve their climate readiness.

Also today, a group of leaders from the health care industry, professional associations, and other organizations have announced their commitments to using the guide to strengthen the resilience of the health care system in the face of a changing climate. And today at the White House, we are bringing together many of these leaders to share their experiences and discuss the best ways to move forward. The conversation will include Secretary Burwell, Counselor to the President John Podesta, and Dr. Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor.

In addition to the climate resilience guide, HHS is developing a suite of online resilience tools for health care facilities to add to the Administration’s new web-based Climate Resilience Toolkit, which provides easy, intuitive access to dozens of Federal tools that can directly help planners and decision makers across America conduct their work in the context of a changing climate. The Toolkit was released last month in response to feedback from the President’s State, Local, and Tribal Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience. In their recommendations to the President, the governors, mayors, tribal leaders and other officials on the Task Force highlighted efforts to preserve human health and build resilient populations as a major theme.

Leaders in the health care industry understand that climate resilience across all sectors is vital to the safety, security, and prosperity of our nation.  In fact, according to an independent study by the National Institute of Building Sciences, every dollar spent on building resilience to hazards saves the nation four dollars in future benefits. The Administration will continue to support health leaders – and leaders in all industries  - as they work to build a healthier, safer, more prosperous nation.

Mike Boots leads the White House Council on Environmental Quality.