The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will begin treating climate change as a public health issue, with the White House arguing that the negative effects are disproportionately affecting poor and minority communities.

The Office of Climate Change and Health Equity is a newly launched office under the Department of Health and Human Services that will report directly to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and the assistant secretary for health as part of President Joe Biden’s efforts to utilize the federal government to address the environmental effects of adverse weather change, the Wall Street Journal reports.

“Its mission is to protect the health of people experiencing a disproportionate share of climate impacts and health inequities from wildfires to drought, to hurricanes to floods,” Becerra said at a news briefing.

HHS officials said that the new office will spearhead initiatives that range across many aspects of healthcare, adding that the new services will offer protections for the most at-risk populations, such as the elderly, minorities, rural communities, and children. The newly established office could even pressure hospitals and other care facilities to cut carbon emissions.

“We will use every authority to its greatest advantage because it is time to tackle climate change now,” Becerra said.

Healthcare risks associated with climate change include deaths and injuries from extreme weather events like heat waves, storms, and floods, as well as infectious diseases from food or water.

“These risks are unevenly distributed and both create new inequities and exacerbate those that already exist,” according to a December 2020 report in the Journal of Health Affairs.

One of the first tasks is to take into account greenhouse gas emissions from various segments of the broad healthcare sector, but the office does not yet have any specific goals for the reduction in emissions that will come from healthcare facilities.

However, hospitals are wary that the initiative will force new regulations when healthcare facilities are already struggling with rising costs in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

“Hospitals and health systems already are undertaking efforts to improve environmental sustainability, although, understandably, their primary focus since January 2020 has been on responding to the public health emergency caused by Covid-19,” Michelle Hood, executive vice president and chief operating officer at the American Hospital Association, told the WSJ.

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