Health Care Reform's Eco Impact

More than 30 countries around the world operate under some form of a universal health care system, but it’s still not practiced in the United States, and 15 percent of Americans are uninsured.

Hundreds rally in front of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in January to demand health care reform. Photo: Flickr/SEIU International

In a September 2009 speech to Congress, President Obama discussed the changes he envisions for citizens with and without health insurance. Under his proposed universal health care plan, he says insurance companies would no longer be able to refuse coverage to the ill, and patients will not be expected to pay out of pocket for expensive treatments or vital operations.

But the health care industry is not one grounded on ecological principles. In fact, it is one of the single most polluting industries in the country. American hospitals generate approximately 6,600 tons of waste daily. As much as 85 percent of that is non-hazardous solid waste, such as paper, cardboard, food waste, metal, glass and plastics, according to Practice Green Health.

Experts says because the current environmental problems in health care institutions were not taken into closer consideration when creating this type of legislation, it may not be possible to immediately gauge the ecological pros and cons of the bill.

The Alliance for Natural Health (ANH), an international campaign that champions natural health over a reliance on pharmaceutical drugs, is one organization that is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of the sustainability side of health care.

A self-proclaimed pioneer of this newfound field, ANH defines sustainable health care as “a complex system of interacting approaches to the restoration, management and optimization of human health that has an ecological base, that is environmentally, economically and socially viable indefinitely, that works harmoniously both with the human body and the non-human environment, and which does not cause any significant unfair or disproportionate effects which may hinder the functioning, development or viability of the health care system itself.”

While ANH has a progressive outlook on the health care industry, Executive and Scientific Director Dr. Robert Verkerk has a less than optimistic opinion of the potential environmental impact universal health care could have.

“Health care has huge implications for the environment as it stands. It represents the single largest industry in the United States. Running hospitals, doctors’ clinics and the massive associated insurance and pharmaceutical industries is the single largest burden on the environment,” he says.

“Current health care costs run the vicinity of $7,000 per person. Some analysts say ‘Obama-care’ will increase this two-fold. Unless we see a radical rethink towards sustainable and natural bio-compatible approaches to health care, something Obama-care could have – but hasn’t – embraced, then this means twice the CO2 emissions, twice the pollution and twice the waste disposal problems.”

"I took on health care because of the stories I've heard from Americans with pre-existing conditions whose lives depend on getting coverage," President Obama said in his January State of the Union address. Photo: Flickr/Steve Rhodes

Verkerk says the only way to create a truly sustainable health care system is to revert back to our ecological roots and “better maintain health equilibrium when subjected to natural processes.”

This means incorporating high-quality foods and healthy lifestyles, elements that Verkerk says the medical community has been “banging on about for years now.”

Anna Gilmore Hall, executive director of Health Care Without Harm, an international team of hospitals, medical professionals, community groups, labor unions and health care systems, agrees that the new plan will have a significant impact as more people will have more access to health care, an issue that the government has yet to address.

“The new legislation will help bring lifesaving services to more people, with correspondingly increased pollution. As 16 percent of the GDP, health care is a large contributor to environmental pollution in the United States,” Hall says.

“We need more research into the contribution to disease from environmental pollutants – for example, from off-gassing of paints, cleaners and construction materials, from chemicals and from carbon emissions from our use of fossil fuels,” she adds.

But while Hall says many hospitals have already set in place sustainable operations, they still need leadership from lawmakers and elected representatives to make an environmental standard a national priority.

However, the health care plan does include some initiatives that could prove sustainable if implemented correctly.

The plan will eliminate the need for duplicate files. Less paperwork means less of an impact on the environment, at least in theory. The new system will make use of a centralized database where doctors will be able to extract the necessary information in order to decrease the risk of mistaken treatments or misdiagnoses.

In connection with the idea of a centralized database, Obama wants doctors to begin practicing medicine “offensively” instead of spending time and energy on preoccupation with insurance companies and legal matters. Oftentimes, unnecessary steps are taken to treat a patient, including the frequent “abuse” of X-ray and MRI machines, which lead to more trashed paper from insurance forms and medical reports.

Also, the legislation offers the Exchange program, which will enable people living in the U.S. to compare insurance plans and select the best features at a competitive, low-cost price.

But while these plans aim to reduce the amount of paper-pushing in hospitals and clinics across the country, organizations such as Health Care Without Harm still believe Obama is tackling health care legislation from the wrong angle.

“Efficiencies such as accounting and administrative costs may be achieved through universal health care,” Hall says. “However, as long as primary prevention is not addressed, and our society continues to focus on managing chronic disease rather than preventing it, the health care system will remain expensive and will not see large reductions in costs.”

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  • Gary Kenneth Archer

    This is a well thought out informative article on a topic that has huge implications to all Americans. Katherine you nailed it when you said ,“However, as long as primary prevention is not addressed, and our society continues to focus on managing chronic disease rather than preventing it, the health care system will remain expensive and will not see large reductions in costs.” Preventative health care needs to be vigorously addressed by health care professionals and politicians alike. Health care costs could be dramatically reduced by simply taking care of ourselves in a responsible manner. Thanks alot.

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  • Linda A.

    Although when it comes to health care, prevention should be stressed over cure, preventative care, for the most part, is available only to the well-off, and to those who have those so-called “Cadillac” health care plans.

  • Chris

    I agree with Linda. The health care industry, like any business, is in it for the money. People’s well-being can be a secondary issue if it means losing money. I’ve been to the doctor(the one with a medical degree) and he had to determine what medicine to give me based on what insurance I had. Who is the person at the insurance company that determines that? Probably a financial planner with some guidance from a person with medical knowledge. Personally, I would like my doctor to determine what is needed.

    With the tough economy, more and more health plans a placing high deductibles and co-pays. Not to mention the high cost of the plan to begin with. Unless, like Linda said, you have a “Cadillac” plan. Because of this, I know of people that avoid going to the doctor because they could end up with hundreds or thousands of dollars in medical bills for a relatively minor issue. This in turn can lead to more expensive problems, which the insurance company will pay for.

  • Sherry

    While I see this argument in the short term, I think the long term results of increased healthcare can reduce consumption. Assuming the industry does not green up its practices at all, better preventative care can reduce chronic illness medical care and hospital stays. Consider this argument over if we keep the status quo.

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  • Ryan T

    This is another reason to price fossil carbon and stop using the atmosphere as a free sewer. Then waste in general (of both energy and the products produced & transported with it) translates to a greater reduction of profit.

  • Columbus Chamber of Commerce

    You make a strong case for the eco benefits.