How Blue Cross is impacting racial and health equity through environmental sustainability

The devastation of dual public health crises, COVID-19 and racism are rooted in systemic inequities. This is true for the less talked about environmental crisis, which research shows is exacting a heavy toll on the health of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) communities. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota recognizes environment as a factor in striving for better health outcomes. Like socioeconomic factors and health behaviors, environment has a direct impact on human health outside of a hospital or doctor’s office. On this Earth Day, with a global pandemic still raging and overt racism on the rise, we must not forget that the consequences of systemic inequities are also causing harm to BIPOC communities through environmental degradation.

Healthier environment for healthier people

Many forms of transportation, as well as built infrastructure, have direct ties to increased air pollution. According to research from the Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to air pollution is linked to many health problems, including cancer, respiratory diseases, and heart disease. Outdoor air pollution has also been shown to cause premature death.

BIPOC communities are disproportionately impacted by both poor environmental quality and climate change which compounds health disparities due to systemic inequities. View a map from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency showing Minnesota’s low-income and BIPOC communities overlapping with higher air pollution scores.

One heartbreaking example is that of 9-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah of London, England, who died in 2013 after suffering a cardiac arrest caused by severe asthma and air pollution exposure. Her death is thought to be the first in the world to have air pollution listed as a cause of death.

Minnesota is no exception

Blue Cross is working hard to address issues related to racial and health equity in Minnesota. Our state has some of the worst racial equity issues in the country as seen in metrics like median income, unemployment rate, poverty rate, home ownership, incarcerations, and education achievement.

Building a health care system that is truly just and free from bias means that we need a practical plan to change how we work. Based on feedback and extensive reflection, we created an enterprise-wide Racial and Health Equity Plan. We set up metrics to track our progress and invested $5 million in racial and health equity initiatives for 2020. In early 2021, we hired Bukata Hayes to be Blue Cross’ first vice president of racial & health equity.

As Minnesota’s largest health insurer, Blue Cross has a responsibility to ensure a healthy environment for healthier people, especially BIPOC communities.

One way we are doing this is by decreasing our carbon footprint, thereby reducing the number of days people are exposed to unhealthy air, a target set by Healthy People 2030. As a commercial entity, Blue Cross’s carbon footprint is measured by Scope 1 and 2 sources like electricity use, natural gas use and combustion sources. In 2018, we committed to reducing our carbon footprint at the Eagan and Northern office campuses by 25% by 2025 from the 2018 baseline.

It’s also why Blue Cross is a member of the Sustainable Growth Coalition, convened by Environmental Initiative. Coalition members are driven by the understanding that the world has finite resources, climate change is real, and disparities are impacting communities. Working with other Coalition members to advance the circular economy is just another way Blue Cross is working to create a healthcare system that works for everyone.

Celebrating early success

In 2020, Blue Cross surpassed the 25% goal, reaching 34% reduction and four years ahead of schedule. We were successful in doing this by:

  • Continuing to invest in the future of our headquarters buildings, upgrading lighting and HVAC equipment to maximize efficiency.
  • Instituting operational changes, including leveraging technology for business meetings rather than traveling, and working remotely rather than commuting to office buildings.
  • Consolidating our office footprint by opting not to renew leases at some of our buildings.
  • We pledge to keep our footprint under this year’s carbon emissions level and even lower it in 2021 and into the future.

Additionally, Blue Cross has integrated racial and health equity into environmental sustainability in several ways:

  • Despite its ongoing challenges, 2020 turned out to be a record year for both Giving Gardens on Blue Cross’ campuses in Eagan and Virginia. The gardens produced more than 1,500 pounds of produce to donate to local food shelves. A typical year yields 600-1,000 pounds.
  • Nice Ride introduced a plan to help critical healthcare workers get to work during COVID-19. In 2020, nearly 824,000 miles were pedaled on 4,800 bikes helping to offset carbon emissions by 668,983 lbs. of CO2.
  • A team of leaders from within Blue Cross, called the Environment Action Team, engages associates to improve health through environmental sustainability by promoting volunteer and giving opportunities with an environmental and health equity focus and identifying best practices that all employees can complete. Taking these simple actions on a regular basis will help to create a fiscally responsible company culture and lower our carbon footprint.

Call to action

You can read more about our company’s success around Racial and Health Equity and our efforts to reduce our carbon footprint in Our Social Impact: 2020 Report to the Community.