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Money and Values: For Healthcare Workers, It’s Time They Align

By WYNNE ARMAND and CHRISTIAN MEWALDT

It shouldn’t be controversial to say that promoting the well-being of patients and our community should be at the core of our decisions in health care — even when competing factors exist. Yet we have grown increasingly uncomfortable to realize that we’ve been investing in companies whose products — including fossil fuels — are at the crux of diseases we treat.

In 2018 alone, fossil fuel combustion-produced particulate matter was responsible for an estimated 9 million deaths worldwide, according to a recent publication by researchers from Harvard University and the Universities of Birmingham and Leicester in the United Kingdom. Other health effects are extensive, including increased cardiovascular disease and respiratory illnesses, especially in small children. Fossil fuels are also widely considered a primary driver of climate change, and their combustion contributes to the increased numbers of record heat waves and heat-related deaths, as many US communities are facing this summer.

Our hospitals, as tax-exempt nonprofits, provide us retirement plans in the form of 403(b)s, financial accounts similar to 401(k)s that are offered by for-profit companies. As employees who are eligible for benefits, we are typically automatically enrolled in the retirement savings plan, with contribution limits determined by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Recently, we learned that by the end of 2020, of the $35 trillion in US retirement assets, $1.2 trillion were invested in these 403(b) plans, according to Investment Company Institute, the trade association for investment companies.

With healthcare representing the largest sector of employers in the US, with nearly 7 million employees at hospitals alone, our employers should provide us with options for retirement funds that do not contain fossil fuel investments that ultimately undermine our duty to patients.  While retirement finances aren’t our focus during our workdays, the effects of our collective $1.2 trillion investment do appear in clinical settings.

The default choice at our institution, like many, is a target-date fund composed of “passive investments”, i.e. indexed stocks and bonds that rebalance as the employee’s retirement date nears. Most also offer pre-screened mutual funds chosen by the employer’s investment committee, or allow participants to transition retirement funds into a brokerage account to self-manage investments. To choose an alternative investment strategy requires financial know-how and effort, so, unsurprisingly, most of us invest in the default. The largest, most-used are the Vanguard Target Retirement Index Funds, which have an estimated $292 billion invested in fossil fuel companies.

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