Hospitals, health groups use purchasing power to push for greener medical products

October 12, 2011

Hospitals and health systems are organizing the industry’s vast purchasing power to push manufacturers of medical products to make them with safer chemicals and to be more environmentally friendly.

Five large groups that buy $130 billion of these products every year on behalf of hospitals and other health-care facilities have adopted a standard set of questions they want vendors to answer. Those questions, which will be released Thursday at an industry conference, are designed to encourage manufacturers to produce “greener and safer products for workers, patients and the environment,” said Gina Pugliese, vice president of the Premier health-care alliance, which has a division that does group purchasing.

The move is significant because the groups represent more than 4,000 hospitals and thousands of other health-care organizations, including doctor’s offices, labs and long-term-care facilities. They already leverage the collective buying power of hospitals and other facilities to negotiate discounts on products.

“What we buy matters,” said Anna Gilmore Hall, executive director of Practice Greenhealth, a member organization of 1,100 hospitals, including the corporate parent of Georgetown University Hospital and Washington Hospital Center.

“It sends a signal to the industry that . . . these are the baseline things you should be thinking about, that there shouldn’t be any horrible toxins and if at all possible,” to use recyclable materials, Pugliese said.

Within the industry, Kaiser Permanente was the first last year to announce that it would require suppliers to provide environmental data for $1 billion worth of medical equipment and products used in Kaiser’s hospitals, medical offices and other facilities. As a result of that initiative, Kaiser is in the process of switching from one type of surgical tool used for minimally invasive surgery to one that does not require a hydrogen peroxide-based chemical for sterilization, a spokeswoman said. Kaiser is also replacing vinyl flooring products with rubber and lineolum to avoid using polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which can release dioxin and other harmful chemicals.

The announcement Thursday is another example of industry stepping ahead of federal regulators in moving away from controversial chemicals, said Andy Igrejas, national campaign director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition of environmental and public health groups pushing for tougher federal regulation of chemicals.

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, has banned a controversial flame retardant found in hundreds of consumer goods, from couches to child car seats. It has told suppliers to come up with safer alternatives.

The nation’s chemical laws, created 35 years ago, make it extremely difficult for the federal government to ban or restrict a chemical’s use. Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency “have been deadlocked in managing chemicals so far,” Igrejas said. He said the efforts of health-care purchasing organizations will send a signal about the way chemicals should be managed that goes beyond health-care customers and workers.

The business groups buying supplies on behalf of hospitals have not been able to find out from their vendors what components or chemicals are in the supplies, Pugliese said. ”You don’t really know what is in the product,” she said.

The questions concern certain medical products used to diagnose, treat or care for patients. The items include sheets, exam gloves and other plastic products, such as oxygen tubing and IV bags. The questions do not apply to any electronic equipment.

Hospitals and their buyers want vendors to tell them whether the products contain a variety of chemicals, such as a type of flame retardant, mercury, and bisphenol A (BPA) a widely used component in plastic that has been linked to reproductive problems, cancer and other health disorders in laboratory animals. Other questions deal with product packaging and product recyclability.

Lena H. Sun is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on health.
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