“The need is obvious, the risks are higher, and the lessons don’t need to be learned the hard way yet again,” said Thomas Tighe, Direct Relief President and CEO. “The Power for Health initiative launched today moves from a response-driven, reactive approach to an affirmative pre-emptive one that is critically needed by America’s nonprofit healthcare safety net that millions of our least fortunate and most vulnerable residents rely on and one that is obviously important in the larger context of resilient power in a rapidly changing environment.”
More than 29 million people in the U.S. rely on community health centers and charitable clinics for primary health care, prescription medications, and chronic disease management. Because healthcare providers, in turn, rely on electricity to provide patient care, unplanned power outages can be disastrous, forcing clinics to close their doors, jeopardizing expensive medications that require refrigeration, making electronic patient records inaccessible, and even proving fatal for patients on electrically powered medical devices.
Meanwhile, California wildfires will only intensify absent dramatic shifts in policy and human behavior at a global scale, according to a new study from UCLA and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Yet, few health centers are prepared to withstand such an outage. In California, for example, fewer than 40 percent of California’s 2,000-plus safety net healthcare sites have any form of backup power, according to a recent analysis by Direct Relief, the California Primary Care Association, and MacroEyes.
Direct Relief works extensively with nonprofit community health centers and free clinics throughout the U.S. on an ongoing basis and in response to emergencies. It is the first U.S. nonprofit to be accredited to distribute prescription medications in all 50 U.S. states, runs the largest charitable medicine program in the country to support uninsured and low-income patients, and since 2017 has provided $1.1 billion in charitable donations of medications and disbursed $127 million in cash to support these critical safety net providers.
The initial $5 million committed today and additional funds received for the Power for Health initiative will be disbursed in grants to nonprofit community health centers and free and charitable clinics in disaster-prone areas to secure resilient energy solutions such as solar generation and backup battery systems.
“If mitigation efforts aren’t taken, wildfire activity in the western United States will increase, resulting in significant impact on human lives, human health and the economy,” said Benjamin Santer, a climate scientist at UCLA and author of the study.
Health centers and clinics in U.S. Gulf Coast states face a similar risk. New findings published in the AGU journal Geophysical Research Letters predict hurricanes will hit certain coastal communities with increasing frequency and quicker succession.
“If you need 15 days to restore infrastructure — for example, a power system — after a storm hits, and the second storm makes landfall before the system can recover, residents will face dangerous conditions,” said Dazhi Xi, a climate scientist at Princeton University, who led the study. In recent years, recognition that power is a prerequisite for healthcare services has informed Direct Relief’s efforts with increasing urgency.
“Modern health care, particularly in the United States, presumes constantly available power,” said Tighe. “The experience of successive years of record-setting wildfires and hurricanes, cold snaps, and flooding that have resulted in extended shutoffs and led to pre-emptive cutoffs have eroded the validity of that presumption.” Electronic health records are required in even nonprofit community health centers, but backup power is not. Millions of people rely on common, power-dependent medical devices such as oxygen concentrators for chronic conditions that, if unmanaged, become acute crises. Most new medications and virtually all vaccines – included those for Covid-19, require cold storage and transport, and the rapid shift to telemedicine and its enormous potential depend on electricity being available.
Direct Relief’s investments in resilient power have expanded rapidly since Hurricane Maria in 2017 left Puerto Rico without power for months, which led to a still-ongoing effort to equip health centers and other facilities with self-sufficient micro-grids that enable sustained operations during outages. In the wake of Gulf Coast hurricanes, Direct Relief responded to requests for emergency generators to dozens of health centers and clinics, from Texas to the Carolinas, that lost power during storms. And in its home state of California, the organization also has begun funding solar and backup battery systems at health centers at extreme fire risk. Among them is Mendocino Coast Clinics, which lost power for three days in 2019. It had no access to electronic health records, lab results, prescription information, reports from specialists, or lighting during that period. Its doctors worked with camping headlamps. Direct Relief’s own 155,000-square-foot California headquarters, which recently added another 5,400 square feet of cold storage space for temperature-sensitive medications, is also a self-contained “microgrid.” The building includes a Tesla-designed solar and a backup battery system to ensure the life-saving medications stored there do not spoil in a power outage.
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The funding announced today will help Direct Relief scale its effort to deploy resilient power solutions to the nation’s health care safety net as threats from climate change mount. Direct Relief’s philanthropic initiative will provide a needed boost to the vast nonprofit healthcare safety net that exists in the U.S. Tax-based incentives such as credits or rebates adopted to spur adoption and expansion of solar power generation, and backup battery storage provide limited to no incentives to nonprofit organizations that are tax-exempt and create an anomaly of nonprofit organizations paying more to install a solar and backup system than a homeowner, or commercial enterprise does. Collectively, nonprofit organizations represent the third-largest workforce by industry in the U.S., following retail and accommodations and food services.