Paying for Health Care by Conserving Forests

Pinchot Institute and Regence BlueCross BlueShield explore linking payments for ecosystem services in family forests with funding health care

August 17, 2010, WASHINGTON D.C. — While the idea that health care could be related to forest conservation may leave some scratching their heads, it turns out there is a strong link between the two. Now a leading health insurance carrier is teaming up with a nonprofit conservation organization to develop new ways to help family forest owners hang onto their land.
 
“Nearly three-fifths of US forest lands are owned by families, often for several generations,” said Al Sample, president of the Pinchot Institute, a Washington-based conservation think-tank. “But financial pressures on these families in recent years have resulted in the loss of forest and open space to development at an average of 6,000 acres a day—4 acres a minute.” 
 
In a survey of forest landowners and their heirs conducted by the Pinchot Institute, the incoming generation of forestland owners believe that incurring sudden unexpected major medical expenses are among the most likely factors that could force them to sell the family forests. In the aftermath of a heart attack or cancer treatment, families often are unable to pay major medical bills without selling off their biggest asset – their land. According to the survey, offspring of forest landowners ranked paying for a catastrophic medical event higher than taxes or job loss as the factor most likely to cause them to sell the family forest.
 
To address this problem, Regence BlueCross BlueShield has joined with the Pinchot Institute to explore new approaches to linking the conservation and sustainable management of family forests to funding family health care needs. This voluntary program would give families who need access to the health care system another way to sustainably manage their land as forest, and have the funding from doing so go directly toward their medical bills. Forest owners may even be able to pay not in dollars, but in credits earned through protecting the ability of their lands to store atmospheric carbon and mitigate climate change.
 
The first phase of the Initiative, led by the Pinchot Institute and funded by Regence BlueCross BlueShield, began in early 2010. Two hundred interviews with forest landowners—this generation and also the next—in Oregon and Washington were conducted to determine potential interest in a carbon payment to health care program. 
 
Among the findings:
  • Almost 30% of offspring stated it was likely or very likely they would have to sell some or all of the family forests to pay for a catastrophic medical event.
  • While most offspring have some form of medical insurance (over 90% of Oregon and Washington offspring said they do), a significant portion of these offspring felt their level of medical coverage would not be enough if a catastrophic medical event hit their family. 
  • Cancer diagnosis, cardiac failure, kidney failure, and long-term care for parents were the conditions most often identified as catastrophic medical events by offspring.
  • Over 50% of offspring in both states ranked getting payment for ecosystem services – like carbon banking – was important or very important right now to managing the family forests.

“We are committed to developing innovative solutions to meet our members’ evolving health care needs,” said Mohan Nair, Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Executive for Regence BlueCross BlueShield. “The abundance of Pacific Northwest forests and the region’s focus on sustainability, combined with the tremendous amount of change in the health care arena, made this an ideal place and time to explore this exciting possibility.”

The next phase of the initiative will determine the interest of owners of family forests in Columbia County in participating in such a voluntary program. The study will also determine whether carbon credits from family forestlands can achieve higher prices in the carbon market if those payments go direct to pay for landowner/family health care products/services. The full report will be available on the Pinchot Institute for Conservation website, under the “News” section.
 
The Pinchot Institute, founded in 1963, is a private non-profit organization that provides independent research, education, and technical assistance on natural resource conservation and sustainable forest resource management. In 2005, the Institute began a major research project to better understand the unique concerns of the next generation of family forestland owners, and how these needs can be met.
 
Regence BlueCross BlueShield, the leading health insurance provider in Oregon, supports independent public research efforts that explore innovative ways to promote sustainable, long-term community health and wellness throughout Oregon and the nation. 
 
About the Pinchot Institute for Conservation
The Pinchot Institute for Conservation (http://www.pinchot.org) is to advance conservation and sustainable natural resource management by developing innovative, practical, and broadly-supported solutions to conservation challenges and opportunities. The Pinchot Institute accomplishes this through nonpartisan research, education and technical assistance on key issues influencing the future of conservation and sustainable natural resource development.
 
About Regence
Regence is the largest health insurer in the Northwest / Intermountain Region, offering health, life and dental insurance. Regence serves more than 2.5 million members as Regence BlueShield of Idaho, Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Oregon, Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Utah and Regence BlueShield (selected counties in Washington). Each health plan is a nonprofit independent licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association. Regence is committed to improving the health of our members and our communities, and to transforming our health care system. For more information, please visit www.regence.com or follow us on Twitter.