HHS Launches Climate Change Office

WASHINGTON — There’s a new environmental sheriff in town at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS): the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity.

“In just the last few weeks, we have seen what climate change can do to the health of the American people,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said at a press briefing Monday morning. “Farmworkers in the fields and elderly people in sweltering apartments are dying from severe heat. Wildfires are choking people, wiping out entire towns, worsening the risks of the COVID 19 pandemic. Floods from a string of tropical storms have drowned people in the southeast, and in my home state of California, people’s taps are running dry; reservoirs are vanishing. The alarm bells are ringing, and we can’t afford to ignore them any longer.”

“That’s why I’m proud to announce the Department of Health and Human Services is adding climate change to the heart of its healthcare mission by establishing the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity,” he continued. “This is the first office of its kind at the national level to address climate change and health equity. Its mission is to protect the health of people experiencing a disproportionate share of climate impacts and health inequities, from wildfires, to droughts, to hurricanes, to floods.”

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The office will have three main goals, Rachel Levine, MD, Assistant Secretary for Health, said at the press conference:

Building community resilience. The new office “will build the resilience of communities to help the impacts of climate change, especially communities facing more than their fair share of the climate change burden,” said Levine. “We will work closely with our regional offices to help tailor solutions that meet each region’s unique needs.”

Reducing carbon emissions in healthcare. The office will “partner with the nation’s hospitals and health systems to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and make them more resilient to the impacts of climate change,” she said, noting that the U.S. health sector accounts for roughly 8.5% of U.S. carbon emissions, while the global health sector accounts for around, 4.5% of global carbon emissions. “This effort is critically important towards meeting President Biden’s goal for economy-wide greenhouse gas reduction by 2030.”

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An HHS spokesman told MedPage Today after the briefing that physician offices will also be included in the outreach. “We need to engage all our stakeholders to be able to move the mark on climate change and health equity,” the spokesman said in an email.

Capitalizing on recovery and infrastructure funding. “We are understanding more and more how the environments where people are born, live, work, play, worship, and age can either make people healthy and long-lived or contribute to illness and health disparities,” Levine said. “Our work is just beginning. Through partnerships and technical support, and by supporting training and education, the office will build the next generation of climate change and health equity leaders to continue the battle.”

At the press briefing, officials were asked several questions about whether the new office would financially penalize hospitals that failed to meet targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions; Becerra did not answer directly. “We’re going to use every tool at our disposal,” he said. “We’re going to reach out and we’re going to explain to them what the law requires, what our authorities permit, and where the President would like us to go. But I will say this: we will use every authority to its greatest advantage because it is time to tackle climate change now. And if we think there’s a way to do it, and if we’ve got tools and authorities to make it happen, we will move.”

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Also at the press briefing was John Balbus, MD, MPH, the office’s interim director, who had been mentioned in the climate change advocacy community as the likely candidate for the job. Regarding the effort to get hospitals and health systems to cut carbon emissions, Balbus noted that the federal government runs many of the nation’s biggest health systems, including in the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Indian Health Service. “Part of our public/private partnerships will be bringing the best technologies, the best practices from the federal sector … and providing technical assistance and using all the leverage that we have to make it easier for the private sector,” he said.

Arsenio Mataka, HHS Senior Advisor of Health Equity and Climate, said the new office was also “working closely with the National Academy of Medicine, who is convening with all kinds of folks, from the health sector all the way to the supply chain folks … to have a more coordinated approach.”

The new office will be staffed by eight employees and have a budget of $3 million; HHS officials seemed optimistic about the office’s reach despite its small size. “With the participation and leadership of the White House and [White House National Climate Advisor] Gina McCarthy, we’re going to be working with other departments in the administration, certainly EPA [the Environmental Protection Agency], the Department of Transportation, and others, so I think that this office will be small but mighty and will have impacts across the department but across the administration as well,” said Levine.

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Later, in response to a question from MedPage Today about the office’s size and budget, Becerra said, “We intend to have a ‘Little Engine That Could’ grow as it develops its authorities, and it expands its reach. I don’t think this office is going to go away. This office will become a permanent fixture within HHS, and it will grow because the need, the challenges are absolutely there. And so as we continue to receive support from Congress to allocate resources to this particular task, we will have an opportunity to grow. But one way or the other, we’re going to find the resources to make this work happen, because it’s too indispensable not to.”

  • Joyce Frieden oversees MedPage Today’s Washington coverage, including stories about Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, healthcare trade associations, and federal agencies. She has 35 years of experience covering health policy. Follow

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