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KP: Shift responsibilities to upstream manufacturers

Healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente has spent years learning new ways to investigate, screen and buy medical products that don’t expose its thousands of hospital patients to harmful industrial chemicals.

But officials of the Oakland-based non-for-profit health plan say they would rather see more choices that are safe in the first place.

“We spend billions of dollars every year on products. Yet we suffer the same problems that individual consumers face as they try to buy products that don’t contain harmful chemicals,” said KathyGerwig, Kaiser Permanente's vice president for employee safety, health and wellness and environmental stewardship officer. “We want to shift the burden of assessing what is safe from downstream users like us to upstream manufacturers.”

The Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) aims to do exactly that with its draft Safer Consumer Products Regulations scheduled to be finalized in 2012. The regulations will require manufacturers of selected products sold in California to identify safer alternatives to a potential range of 3,000 chemicals known to be harmful to public health and the environment.

“We see DTSC’s regulations as moving in the right direction, in promoting a healthy economy, healthy environment and healthy people,” Gerwig told the Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials at a December 2011 hearing in Sacramento.

Kaiser Permanente, with 36 hospitals, 15,853 doctors and 8.9 million members, is nationally recognized as a medical industry trailblazer in safer products. The Oakland organization created a Sustainability Scorecard in 2010 to help find greener alternatives for the $1 billion in medical products it buys each year. The scorecard inspired nonprofit Practice Greenhealth to work with five large purchasing organizations, creating a tool helping health care providers with $135 billion in purchasing power press suppliers for medical products with safer chemicals. Recently, Kaiser Permanente announced that its annual purchases of 9.2 million IV solution bags will be 100 percent free of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and di(2-ethylhexyl) (DEHP). Its 4.9 million IV plastic tubing sets will also be free of DEHP. Both ingredients, widely used in medical equipment, have been shown to be harmful to health.

The decision is expected to save Kaiser Permanente $5 million a year.

Kaiser Permanente’s procurement and supply teams have also selected exam gloves that are PVC-free and latex safe. It pushed suppliers to provide PVC-free carpet for its facilities and made itself 95 percent mercury free.

“Kaiser buys materials, as a consumer, that would benefit all sorts of businesses, not just the health care industry,” said Debbie Raphael, director of DTSC. “When Kaiser Permanente says, ‘We want a carpet without PVC backing, or we want tubing that doesn’t contain DEHP, they get what they’re looking for in the marketplace, and the rest of us benefit, as well.’”

“We’re proud of these accomplishments,” said Gerwig. “But we’d much rather have upstream manufacturers and others involved in the design and distribution of products ensure their product safety, so we don’t have to.”