By Erica Kimmerling, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Assistant Director for Community Driven Health

The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to improving the health and well-being of all Americans. To enable all people to lead full and healthy lives within their communities, the social and environmental factors that impact health outcomes must be addressed. The Administration’s strategic approach to addressing health related social needs is captured in The U.S. Playbook to Address Social Determinants of Health (SDOH).  This Playbook focuses on solutions to the gap between health and social services by expanding data access and sharing, implementing flexible funding approaches, and supporting backbone organizations. It also highlights federal programs, toolkits, and guidance that front-line workers and organizations can use to improve their delivery of health and social services.

Improving health equity by reducing disparities in SDOH is deeply intertwined with the Administration’s actions addressing climate change and supporting environmental justice. Populations experiencing social and economic drivers of poor health outcomes are also at higher risk of exposure to environmental hazards. These cumulative health harms are felt particularly by low-income communities and communities of color. Moreover, inequities are worsened when SDOH disparities interact with the far-reaching health impacts of climate change including exacerbating chronic medical conditions, causing direct injury and displacement, affecting maternal and child health, contributing to mental health harms, and beyond. For example, low-income communities with an inadequate supply of stable and high-quality housing are at higher risk from extreme heat exposure, and from extreme weather events. Chronic diseases such as asthma and cardiovascular disease, some of which disproportionately affect Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous populations, are risk factors for health harms from exposure to air pollution and extreme heat. The evidence is clear: action on climate change and environmental justice is a health equity imperative.   

The Administration’s actions to tackle the climate crisis — including our Investing in America agenda and efforts to promote environmental justice and increase equitable access to nature, and promote environmental justice (described in Executive Order 14008, Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, and Executive Order 14096, Revitalizing our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All) are part of the foundation of a cohesive and bold strategy to address major upstream drivers of disparities in SDOH and health outcomes. The Biden-Harris Administration has made it a goal that 40 percent of the overall benefits of investments in climate change, affordable and sustainable housing, remediation and reduction of legacy pollution, and the development of critical clean water and wastewater infrastructure be directed to communities with a legacy of environmental pollution and disinvestment.

Historic investments in communities across the country are now possible due to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law , the Inflation Reduction Act, and the American Rescue Plan. To ensure these commitments are put into action, Cabinet agencies have formed the Thriving Communities Network to provide place-based technical assistance to urban, rural, and Tribal communities experiencing a history of economic distress and systemic disinvestment. These efforts include $177 million for the Environmental Protection Agency’s 16 new technical assistance centers launched in April 2023. Ongoing activities to provide more equitable access to parks and nature in communities will support local reduction of climate risks, while also providing communities the health benefits that come with access to nature. Green space and nature exposure have been shown to improve mental health, increase opportunities for physical activity, and provide greater social cohesion within a community.

Notably, efforts to address SDOH in healthcare settings can help to protect those currently at-risk from health harms from climate change. The Office of Climate Change and Health Equity has released a referral guide for health professionals to assist health and human services providers with addressing climate-related threats to their clients’ well-being. The guide includes information about current federal resources that can provide at-risk individuals with utility payment assistance and home weatherization funds. New tools such as a National Dashboard to Track Heat-Related Illness will help public health officials provide medical aid to those most in need and support evidence-based investments in community resilience. Alongside the actions of the Federal government, healthcare organizations can make upstream investments in healthy environments for their patients and communities, and to mitigate the harms from climate change. The White House and Health and Human Services Climate Pledge calls on healthcare organization to commit to emissions reduction and climate resilience.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy is committed to leveraging Federal science and technology for environmental justice through the newly launched National Science and Technology Council Environmental Justice Subcommittee as part of the implementation of the environmental justice executive order. This subcommittee will ensure a coordinated Federal strategy to identify and address gaps in science, data, and research related to environmental justice. This work centers community engagement and a cumulative impacts framework to address and stop legacies of systemic inequities that contribute to negative community health outcomes.

 Improving community health outcomes requires a multi-sectoral approach that addresses both the social and environmental drivers of health. Upstream interventions that address root causes of SDOH disparities are critical, along with actions that connect healthcare with programs and services to address interconnected social and environmental health needs.  The actions described in the SDOH Playbook align with the climate and environmental justice commitments of the Biden-Harris Administration to advance the vision of healthy, thriving communities that support the well-being of every American.

For more information on recent Administration actions on climate and environmental justice see:

Thank you to Aparna Bole in the HHS Office of Climate Change and Health Equity for contributing to the development of this blog.


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