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Can Greenhealth Exchange transform hospital supply chains?

Dignity Health, Gundersen, Dartmouth-Hitchcock and Partners HealthCare are targeting the $300 billion market for supplies, furniture and food.

Four major companies with 54 hospitals and $4 billion in annual purchasing power launched an online marketplace Tuesday to steer the health care industry in an environmentally beneficial direction.

Greenhealth Exchange lists products — from IV tubes to cafeteria food to waiting room sofas — screened to meet specifications regarding the absence of toxicity and a low environmental footprint in their manufacture, use and disposal.

Frustrated by the complexity of procuring medical supplies and hospital furnishings free of chemicals that can harm human health and the environment, the founding member organizations have been working on sustainability for decades.

The goal is to make green purchasing very easy for entire health care industry.

Dignity Health, Dartmouth-Hitchock Health Care, Gundersen Health System and Partners HealthCare launched sustainability programs and eschew toxic substances. To create Greenhealth Exchange, they are joining the nonprofits Health Care without Harm and Practice GreenHealth which have been campaigning for decades to take environmental toxins out of health care.

What's at stake for suppliers is the $300 billion hospital and medical supplies market.

"The goal is to make green purchasing very easy for entire health care industry," said John Strong, CEO of Greenhealth Exchange, during a conference call with reporters.

He said he believes the mere existence of Greenhealth Exchange will accelerate development of greener medical supplies because those selling them will enjoy a competitive advantage.

"We hope to spark innovation along the supply chains and in (development of) products themselves," he said.

Dignity Health executive Sister Mary Ellen Leciejewski, director of ecology, called it a welcome disruption to business as usual.

"We are also excited to see the innovative disruptions that the exchange will bring to the marketplace," in addition to how it can "enhance" healing in communities, she said, adding that it is often communities surrounding hospitals that bear the toxicity.

Two decades ago the Environmental Protection Agency identified the hospital industry's practice of incinerating medical waste as the country's largest source of dioxin emissions and a very large source of mercury pollution.

Then, Health Care Without Harm began its crusade to get hospitals to stop using material with such toxins as PVCs and lessen its environmental impact.

Gary Cohen, Health Care Without Harm's founder who was named a MacArthur Genius in 2015 for his work on environmental health, said phthalates, an additive to many PVC products, are particularly harmful because they can leach into the contents of fluid-holding plastic containers and lead to small amounts entering the blood streams of patients. Tiny patients like newborns are particularly vulnerable to exposure to trace amounts of chemicals, he told reporters.

Kaiser Permanente, working with Health Care Without Harm, became one of the first health care organizations to phase out use of plastic supplies with PVCs and other toxins. And Tuesday, it too announced an expanded effort around sustainability and environmental health.

Kaiser vowed that it will be "carbon net positive" within 10 years and will have reduced waste through recycling and reuse so that it sends zero waste to landfills by then.

Kaiser vowed that it will be "carbon net positive" within 10 years and will have reduced waste through recycling and reuse so that it sends zero waste to landfills by then. It also intends to buy all of its food locally from local farms or sustainable producers. And it plans to increase its purchase of goods that meet the enviromental standards of the ISO to 50 percent.

The health care industry uses a great deal of energy and, as such, has a large carbon footprint.

Kaiser's 50 percent goal on environmental goods is telling. A spokeswoman said that describes the state of the market "where many manufacturers are not even required to disclose what is in their materials." 

That is the problem that Greenhealth Exchange is trying to answer.

"It was very hard to find products that did not include chemical toxins and did not expose our patients and staff," to toxic elements, said Partners' John Messervy, corporate director of design and construction of his own hospital chain's effort to avoid potentially harmful products.  He described an arduous 20 year journey for his hospital chain in trying to transition to non-toxic chemical use and build LEED-certified hospitals.

"Health care as a business sector has a very large environmental footprint," he said.

Now Greenhealth Exchange will do that work of identifying and verifying non-toxic, environmentally harmless supplies, furnishings, appliances and even food — and drive the markets to supply more of those products through the four hospital firms' $4 billion in buying power.

"Sometimes the prices are not competitive. Everyone wants to buy green but they can't pay more. We recognize that and are trying to rectify that. At GX (Greenhealth Exchange) we are trying to bring costs down so they are competitive," Strong said.

Greenhealth Exchange is building a catalogue of products which it hopes will be available by fall. Now, as it launches, it will begin signing up members and reviewing products for possible inclusion.

A new B Corp

Greenhealth Exchange is technically a B Corporation, an IRS designation meaning it has fiduciary responsibility to the community it serves — patients, hospital workers and surrounding communities.

Hospitals join as members. They can either be participating partners that invest in the capital formation of the marketplace, an $150,000 membership cost. Or beginning in the fall, a hospital can join as a user, paying fees in the realm of $250 per some amount of time. Strong said the fee structure is yet to be worked out. 

The Greenhealth Exchange sets out specifications that products must meet in contents and how the product was manufactured, used and disposed at end of its usable life. Products that don't meet the specifications are not listed in the database catalogue.

Products are both screened and then given a sustainability score.

The Exchange offers price comparisons for similar products, or products that purport to do the same thing.  And it provides detailed metrics on performance.

"We provide important metrics for every purchase such as carbon emissions reduced, energy and water saved, safer chemicals used and more. You’ll have the benefit of knowing you’re changing the world for the better, one purchase at a time," the site states.

Even food is included, with the Greenhealth Exchange scoring food vendors for sustainable food production practices and the local sourcing of ingredients, relative to a given hospital chain or hospital.



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