Opinion

A Real Health Problem: Insurers Must Divest From Fossil Fuels

Even though fossil fuels impact human health, by polluting the air we breathe, the soil we grow food in, and the water we drink, U.S. health insurers collectively invest tens of billions of dollars into coal, oil, and gas companies. (istock)

Premiums, deductibles, networks, and prior authorizations: even as medical students, we realize how enmeshed the health-insurance jargon is to providing patient care.

No matter the insurance company, public or private, the basic tenet is the same: We pay it forward to these companies to keep us healthy. We rely on insurers to have our backs when we fall ill, but what if they were collectively responsible for contributing to the deaths of thousands of Americans every year?

Health professionals and health advocates are working together to expose the health insurance industry’s secret: U.S. health insurers collectively invest tens of billions of dollars into coal, oil, and gas companies, even though exposure to pollution from the extraction, transport, and burning of fossil fuels costs 200,000 lives annually in the United States, all from preventable sickness.

It must be said that these deaths are mostly concentrated among the already structurally vulnerable. The reasons that fossil-fuel infrastructure is sited overwhelmingly near communities of color are multifactorial — cheaper land and less resource investment from decades of racially charged redlining and barriers to equitable representation from communities of color on predominantly White decision-making committees — and ultimately mean that health sequelae of fossil-fuel exposure fall on already marginalized populations.

One only needs to look at the highway built through the now-displaced Cape Verdean community in Providence’s Fox Point, the transformation of Allens Avenue from lushly forested land to desolate, fenced-in industrial waste facilities, and the summer days in Central Falls that are up to 15 degrees hotter than the East Side of Providence due to the disparity in canopy cover. These exposures contribute to higher rates of severe childhood asthma and death from cardiovascular and cancer-related illnesses among predominantly Black, Latino, Indigenous, and Southeast Asian people compared to their White counterparts.

Health-insurance investment in these dirty energy companies also exacerbates the public health toll of the climate crisis. The World Health Organization estimates climate change will cause an additional 250,000 deaths per year between 2030 and 2050, at a cost of $2-$4 billion annually.

Rhode Island is certainly no exception to the impact of climate change. While our 400 miles of coastline make a sought-after destination as the Ocean State, it also means that folks living in Rhode Island will be disproportionately affected by rising sea levels, warming waters, and severe storms. The temperature of Narragansett Bay has increased by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1960s and we are already seeing a decline of native fish and marine species.

The impact of climate change on our state is hardly limited to our coast — by 2050 it is projected that the number of heat waves in the state will quadruple from 10 to up to 40 days a year. This is of particular concern given Rhode Island’s F grade for air quality by the American Lung Association in three counties, which account for 87 percent of the state’s population. More than 100,000 Rhode Island residents live with asthma, and 55,000 adults have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and are disproportionately impacted by the increase in ozone levels and particulate matter.

If health-insurance companies are truly committed to the collective and individual health of the people they serve, then investing in the very industries that make people sick is hypocritical at best and nefarious at worst. It’s long past time for U.S. health insurers to join the more than 30 insurers worldwide that have divested from fossil fuels.

We call for insurers to instead invest in the health and future of our communities by using these funds to support renewable energy. Rhode Island is the first state that has committed to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, but this vision can only be achieved if the companies we pay to keep us safe divest from the industries that harm us. Until we stand in solidarity as a community and demand these changes, we will be doing our patients a disservice to their health.

Mattie Boehler-Tatman, Julia Rothschild, and Angela Zhang are medical students at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

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  1. Corporate America will continue to use the atmosphere as a free dumping ground for carbon waste until our elected leaders enact legislation to prevent them from doing so (see: https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2020-election-company-campaign-finance-climate-change/). Unfortunately, the corrupting influence of big money in politics will continue to prevent such legislation until we find the political will to amend the Constitution to overturn anti-democratic Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United v. FEC (2010) and American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock (2012). The We the People Amendment (HJR.48) would solve the problem.

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