5 takeaways from HHS’ environmental justice strategy

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The Health and Human Services Department’s Thursday release of a draft plan to tackle environmental health issues looks very similar to its environmental justice strategy outlined in 1995, but with an additional focus on climate change and communities most affected by extreme weather.

The department seeks public input on whether its outlined strategy adequately addresses key environmental concerns. Experts say HHS needs to focus on addressing the industry’s own carbon footprint and waste as well as occupational health hazards.

Here are five takeaways on the draft:

1. Scant details on funding

Funding has not been allocated for the initative, and the size of the pot largely determine how effective it will be.

The World Health Organization estimates that by 2030, climate-related health issues will cost $2 billion to $4 billion per year. xx Historically marginalized communities will bear the brunt of those health issues, as they have with xx will be adversely affected, similar to other environmental concerns such as access to clean water and toxic waste exposure.

HHS says it will establish community-based partnerships and work with local and state health departments to reduce disparities among federally funded social service programs. The department also plans to provide funding for cooling units and energy stipends in areas disporportionately affected by extreme weather events.

In 2021, funding for research to better understand the effect of climate change on health within the National Institute of Health and Center for Disease Control and Prevention increased $200 million year-over-year. The American Jobs Plan invested $1.5 billion in public health funding, some of which will go toward building resilience to climate change.

2. New focus on racial and economic disparities

A new component HHS’ environmental justice plan is its focus on racial and economic disparities and serving communities disproportionately affected by environmental health concerns.

HHS plans to increase linguistic capabilities and cultural competency within healthcare delivery and advance research on the factors that contribute to racial health disparities, specifically among Black and Indigenous people.

“They’re spending a lot of resources targeting structural racism and determinants of health and environmental exposures,” University of Arizona professor of public health Paloma Beamer said. “That’s been pretty exciting.”

3. Reducing industry emissions and environmental impacts

While the plan focuses mainly on responding to environmental inequities, there is opportunity to focus on reducing the healthcare industry’s own environmental footprint, Beamer said.

It is estimated the U.S. healthcare sector is responsible for 8.5% of national carbon emissions. On a global scale, the U.S. accounts for 25% of all global health sector emissions, according to researchers from the National Academy of Medicine.

In a separate climate change intiative, HHS is focused internally on reducing emissions and increasing climate resilience across federal operations and offering incentives for the private sector to play along.

“Our plan provides a road map for assuring that we all work together to address the threats to health and well-being related to climate change for all people in the United States, especially those most vulnerable,” an HHS spokesperson said. “The plan also ensures continuity of operations of health facilities in the face of extreme weather events and fosters healthy greenhouse gas reduction and resilience efforts in the public health sector and community.”

4. Workforce recruitment and training

The draft plan commits to recruiting people from underserved communities to fill environmental hazard cleanup, construction and emergency response jobs and establish environmental justice training programs among federal staff and healthcare workers.

Beamer said HHS should target those same communities to expand the field of clinicians in public health and primary care.

5. Occupational hazards

It isn’t discussed in the draft, but occupational health hazards also should fold into the conversation and more research is needed, Beamer said. According to the CDC, workplace illness and injuries cost the United States $250 billion in healthcare costs annually.

Regulations related to workplace safety typically fall under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under the Department of Labor, but HHS funds research on workplace illness and injury thought the National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health.

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