Report: Climate changes costing U.S. billions in health spending

From deaths and injuries caused by extreme heat and stronger storms to longer growing seasons linked to an increased risk of mosquito- and tick-borne illnesses and wildfires, the healthcare impacts of climate change are costing the U.S. billions, a new analysis found.

Case in point: An analysis of a single year—2012—by researchers at the Natural Resource Defense Council and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) estimated a total of 10 climate-sensitive events in the U.S. that ultimately cost $10 billion. 

That estimate stems from costs associated with 917 deaths, 20,568 hospitalizations and 17,857 emergency room visits, researchers said in the study published in the journal GeoHealth.

Among the costs connected to “climate-sensitive events” in 2012, researchers pointed to:

  • $252 million in Wisconsin: A heatwave led to several record temperatures were broken over the span of a week in July 2012. Researchers analyzed costs from an estimated 27 deaths, 155 hospitalizations and 1,620 emergency room visits that summer.
  • $1.6 billion in Colorado and $2.3 billion in Washington: Longer fire seasons in the western U.S. have resulted from higher temperatures and changes in seasonal rainfall patterns. Researchers examined costs from direct wildfire deaths and impacts attributed to wildfire smoke in 2012. There were 174 deaths, 256 hospitalizations and 1,432 emergency room visits in Colorado and 245 deaths, 371 hospitalizations and 1,897 emergency room visits in Washington.
  • $3.1 billion in New Jersey and New York: Hurricane Sandy caused severe flooding and power outages for more than 20 million customers. Sea level rise is believed to have amplified the storm surge. Researchers estimate there were 273 hurricane-related deaths, 6,602 hospitalizations and 4,673 emergency room visits.

Researchers said mortality costs were estimated using a mortality risk valuation implemented by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in regulatory impact analyses, with each life lost valued at $9.1 million in 2018 dollars. They also factored direct morbidity costs for each event using hospital admissions and emergency department visits from the federal Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project data well as costs associated with outpatient visits, home health care costs and prescribed drugs from the federal Medical Expenditure Panel Survey.

They acknowledged several limitations of the study. For instance, they said, “despite record-setting weather conditions across the U.S. in 2012, our analysis was restricted to case studies for which there was adequate documentation of health impacts,” they said.

They only included mental health impacts from Hurricane Sandy despite evidence that other events like wildfires can also adversely impact mental health. They also said extreme heat and Lyme disease are routinely underreported health effects that could result in conservative estimates.

“As such, the $10 billion total we calculated is likely a conservative estimate of health-related costs for these studies,” researchers said in this study.

Still, these costs are not just theoretical, but tangible costs that should be factored into the policy conversation, said Wendy Max, co-director of the Institute for Health & Aging at UCSF.

“We wanted to look at who bears this cost and we found two-thirds of the cost are borne by the Medicaid and Medicare programs,” Max said. “In an era of concern about healthcare costs, this is an important message: Climate change is adding to the public healthcare cost burden. That’s a message we’re hoping will resonate with policymakers.”