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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Extreme heat deadlier than wildfires, California insurance regulator says

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SACRAMENTO, California — Extreme heat waves have cost Californians at least $7.7 billion over the last decade and killed nearly 460 people, according to a report released Monday by California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara.

While nearly every Californian was somehow affected, people of color and older people suffered the most impacts to their health, according to the report.

The first-of-its kind analysis by the Insurance Department shows the staggering and wide-ranging impacts of extreme heat right at the beginning of a week of triple digit temperatures that will bake inland California.

It also comes a day after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a budget that eliminated millions of dollars previously planned for cooling and resilience centers and a program to track heat-related hospital visits. Lawmakers over the weekend released proposed language for a climate bond on the November ballot that would raise around $400 million for extreme heat programs — including $100 million for resilience centers — if approved by voters.

Lara said the report underscored the need to protect residents and address the economic costs of heat. “Extreme heat is a silent, escalating disaster that threatens our health, economy, and way of life in California,” said Lara, who sponsored the 2022 legislation that prompted the report. “We must prioritize resilience-building efforts and innovative insurance solutions to safeguard our state against the growing impacts and financial risks of extreme heat.”

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The premature death estimate is still likely an undercount; the Los Angeles Times in 2019 estimated that high temperatures had killed nearly 4,000 people between 2010 and 2019, which was more than six times higher than the official state figures.

But even the state figure is still higher than the death toll from other disasters, including wildfires and storms.

The total price tag of the seven extreme heat events since 2013 includes lost labor productivity, costs related to power outages, infrastructure repairs and premature mortality, according to the report.

Black, Hispanic, and Native American communities disproportionately suffered adverse health outcomes, including emergency room visits and hospitalizations. Older populations had the most premature deaths and younger populations had the most emergency heat-related illnesses.

Acute renal failure, respiratory issues, mental health problems and ischemic strokes contributed to more than 5,000 hospitalizations over the seven heat events. Hospitals saw nearly 10,600 emergency department visits, more than 138,000 outpatient visits and nearly 344 adverse birth outcomes.

The report also outlines how few insurance tools exist to help people and businesses recoup from heat-related losses.

Of the people hospitalized, only 17 percent had private insurance, a far lower rate than average across the state.

Manufacturing insurance policies are unlikely to have heat as a covered peril, according to the report, and crop insurance policies don’t often cover heat for California’s many specialty crops.

Several state agencies, including the Insurance Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, are setting up an extreme heat wave ranking and warning system as prompted by the same 2022 legislation. CalHeatScore is scheduled to be up and running by January 2025.

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