Boston Medical Center has spent a lot of energy helping low-income communities. Now with actual electrical energy, it will do more.
The health system announced Monday that it will use energy credits generated from a new solar array on its administrative building to help reduce patients’ electric bills. The program, called Clean Power Prescription, is in a similar vein to its long-operating food pantry, which gives patients access to healthy and locally-grown foods via a prescription.
“Energy is such a basic need for people,” said Dr. Anna Goldman, a primary care physician at BMC. “People in Boston have a high energy burden. Our low income people often pay between 5 and 10 percent of their income for their energy costs. That’s a significant amount of a burden on patients who are already living very close to the margin.”
The hospital initially expects to provide 80 households credits of $50 a month for a year. To start, the program will be available to Eversource electric customers treated in the hospital’s complex care management program, which focuses on patients who are high utilizers of the health system, have at least one chronic condition, and are in the health system’s Medicaid program.
For several years, BMC physicians have been screening patients for health related social needs when they come in for a visit. Physicians can write a letter to prevent a shut off of utilities, part of a state rule that restricts shutoffs when doing so could impact a patient’s health. So far this year, BMC physicians have written over 1,300 requests to utility companies.
While that prevented crises from occurring, Goldman, cofounder of the Clean Power Prescription program, said those emergency measures never addressed patients’ underlying financial strains.
But the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act provided new opportunities, by offering subsidies for more than half the cost of installation of new projects if at least half the power from it were donated to low-income people.
BMC will retroactively apply for the Inflation Reduction Act subsidies to be applied to its 365 kilowatt solar project.
Bob Biggio, chief sustainability and real estate officer at Boston Medical Center and another cofounder of the program, said the Inflation Reduction Act delivered on two top public policy priorities for which the system had been pushing with the help of environmental advocacy group Health Care Without Harm. It aids low-income communities, and it offers direct payments to nonprofits who couldn’t take advantage of tax credit incentives for green energy.
The law also allows for other organizations to build renewable energy and receive the subsidy by allocating the credits to BMC’s patients. Officials hope that will expand upon the work BMC is beginning, including helping patients who are customers of other energy providers.
The need is likely greater than BMC’s initial program. Though there was a moratorium on shut-offs during the public health emergency, the economic devastation of the pandemic still meant families saw escalating amounts of debt to the energy companies.
More people are energy insecure than before. The cost of energy in Boston is also higher than the national median. Through the BMC pilot, clinicians will be analyzing whether the program was effective at its current size, Goldman said.
What was already clear is the need for a baseline amount of aid. Goldman said energy access is a primary health concern, not only to keep a patient’s house at a livable temperature in the summer and winter, but also to keep the refrigerator running for fresh foods, to power medical devices, and even to keep the lights on.
“For many of these patients, I ended up referring them to psychotherapy to deal with the chronic stress of living in poverty,” Goldman said. “But that feels really incomplete. Like, let’s help you with these hard feelings you’re having from living in poverty. It feels so much more complete to be able to say and let’s help address the underlying causes of your poverty.”