Hospitals in the Council’s crosshairs: A green buildings bill would hobble the city’s health-care institutions

April 9, 2019


The City Council is moving quickly to pass a “green buildings” bill that would dramatically reduce the carbon emissions of every building in New York City larger than 25,000 square feet, with strict timelines and major fines for noncompliance. We agree that the causes of climate change, including emissions from large buildings, must be urgently addressed and admire the Council’s advocacy on this issue.

But in the rush to pass this bill by Earth Day, April 22, the Council is ignoring the very real concerns raised by New York City’s non-profit hospitals about the technical and financial impossibility of meeting the bill’s aggressive goals. That’s a huge mistake.

Hospitals have unique energy requirements, including 24/7 operations, energy-intensive technology such as MRIs and CT scanners and the ability to generate their own power during disasters, that make meeting the bill’s targets impossible. This means large fines that could literally push some fragile health-care institutions over the financial cliff.

Unfortunately, after facing significant criticism for exemptions in previous versions of the bill, its primary sponsor, Councilman Costa Constantinides, has vowed that no buildings will be exempted. That insistence flies in the face of the reality on the ground.

By any measure, our nonprofit hospitals have proven their commitment to combating climate change. Many have voluntarily joined the Mayor’s Carbon Challenge to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2020 and 40% by 2030. Some have even committed to a 50% reduction by 2025.

But this progress — and the technical realities — are not recognized by the proposed bill. Here’s why:

The bill’s emission limits are too low. Hospitals have unusually high energy requirements because of their patient care mission. Numerous federal and New York State standards to ensure sanitary air and infection control put great demands on their energy use.

Even the newest facilities built to high environmental standards, like a three-year-old building at Mount Sinai Queens Hospital, would not meet the bill’s limits. The NYU Langone health system modeled a hospital with the most efficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning system and lighting equipment that could be retrofit into an existing building, and found that satisfying ventilation requirements alone would put them over the bill’s carbon cap. And NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital concluded that to meet the bill’s requirements, “approximately 100 acres of solar panels would be needed to meet the electrical demands of the Columbia University Irving Medical Center alone” — a literal impossibility.

Hospitals are unfairly targeted. The bill requires significant reductions from hospitals but permits other sectors to actually increase their greenhouse gas emissions. What is the policy reason for giving office buildings, distribution centers, multifamily housing, schools and auto dealerships easier emission limits than hospitals serving New York’s most vulnerable communities?

Many hospitals are already struggling. The average operating margin for New York State hospitals is 1.8% — three times lower than the national average. Nearly 30 rely on hundreds of millions in annual state subsidies just to keep their doors open, including seven in Brooklyn and Queens. A big reason for this fiscal distress is that hospitals lose money serving Medicaid and Medicare patients (most patients in New York City) and the uninsured.

The cost of complying with the bill would divert precious resources from government insurance programs, especially Medicaid, and put substantial pressure on commercial insurance premiums that employers pay.

Hospitals are the economic lifeblood of their neighborhoods and the biggest private employers in New York City. Without common-sense exemptions, the green buildings bill will jeopardize thousands of union jobs, including nurses, medical aides, technicians and custodians.

And for the jobs that survive the bill, it will be even harder to find resources for salaries and benefits. Hospital closures, of which our city has seen more than its fair share, would become more likely. At a minimum, access to care will be severely threatened.

We urge a hospital exemption from the green buildings bill.

Gresham is president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. Raske is president of the Greater New York Hospital Association.