HHS launches ‘small but mighty’ office to tackle health effects of climate change
HHS has launched the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity to “protect vulnerable communities who disproportionately bear the brunt of pollution and climate-driven disasters ... at the expense of public health.”
However, hospital leaders are concerned that the initiative will enforce regulations at a time when facilities are financially struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Wall Street Journal.
A collaborative effort
The Office of Climate Change and Health Equity is the first of its kind on a national level to address health equity and climate change, according to the Biden administration.
Although the new office may reside within HHS, multiple other agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, Health Resources and Services Administration and Department of Transportation will help carry out its mission, Rachel Levine, MD, assistant secretary of health at HHS, said during a conference call. Some of its responsibilities include assisting with regulatory efforts to lower greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution in the health care industry and encouraging opportunities that would build the “climate and health workforce,” according to a press release.
“This office will be small but mighty and will have real impact across the department, but across the administration as well,” Levine said during the conference call with reporters.
Arsenio Y. Mataka, JD, a senior adviser for climate change and health equity at HHS, said that agencies affiliated with the office will look for opportunities to improve programs and prioritize “people who are suffering now with the impacts of climate change.”
Universal support may be lacking
Health care organizations such as the AAP and AMA have welcomed previous Biden administration initiatives on climate change. The ACP was among the societies to condemn the previous administration’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 multinational Paris climate agreement to reduce global warming and the greenhouse effect.
However, the Wall Street Journal reported that the American Hospital Association expressed concern the new office would issue rules or regulations that would require health systems to divert funds being used to fight COVID-19 to system upgrades.
A Biden administration official on the conference call declined to comment on specific regulations and rules based on existing policy that the new office might try to enforce upon health systems, as well as penalties the health systems might face if they fail to follow such rules and regulations.
“We are not bringing unique regulatory authorities in any way, shape or form,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, JD, said during the conference call. “But we are bringing subject matter expertise, we’re bringing an understanding of the data and the science behind a lot of this, and we’re bringing a lot of collaborative spirit and a lot of convening power.”
He also said that climate change can no longer be an issue pushed down the road for future generations to address.
“The West is on fire. And states like Tennessee and those in New England are recovering from devastating storms,” Becerra said. “There is no doubt that America is experiencing climate change, and there is no reason for us to doubt that we must take this on immediately. It’s not just about the climate. It’s not just about our environment. It’s about our health.”
AAP. Executive actions lay groundwork for progress on child health issues. https://www.aappublications.org/news/2021/03/01/washington030121. Accessed Aug. 30, 2021.
AMA. AMA applauds Biden Administration on first-day executive actions. https://www.ama-assn.org/press-center/press-releases/ama-applauds-biden-administration-first-day-executive-actions. Accessed Aug. 30, 2021.
Armor S. Wall Street Journal. Climate change to be treated as public-health issue. https://www.wsj.com/articles/climate-change-to-be-treated-as-public-health-issue-11630315800?mod=hp_lead_pos4
HHS. HHS establishes Office of Climate Change and Health Equity. https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2021/08/30/hhs-establishes-office-climate-change-and-health-equity.html. Accessed Aug. 30, 2021.