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Gundersen investment in environmental initiatives pays off

When the board of Gundersen Health System made the far-sighted decision 13 years ago to begin investing in greener energy and operations, it was a bet on the future of our three-state region.

Today, we’re a healthier region because those investments have paid off.

And Gundersen has shown the value of doing good while doing well.

As with any investment, there’s risk.

Gundersen has invested about $40 million in its Envision environmental program.

The La Crosse-based health-care center became the first nationally to become energy independent in 2014. And last month, the dozen or so investments have paid off.

Gundersen says it has reduced environmental emissions and use of fossil fuel while producing a 54% improvement in operating margins.

Gundersen has won acclaim, awards and admiration nationwide for its environmental initiatives, and whether you’re a patient or a business partner, you can be thankful that these nontraditional investments have resulted in a healthier community.

How else can you explain a health-care center in the Upper Midwest becoming a nation leader by harnessing solar power, wind energy, biomass, geothermal and biogas?

“The sustainability project has really informed us on what else we can do on a population health standpoint,” CEO Dr. Scott Rathgaber says. “This isn’t taking care of someone’s broken leg, but it is taking care of the health of the community. This is an example of what health systems should be doing to drive community health.”

The environmental initiatives have included a number of partnerships – from companies that sell wood chips to fire the furnaces (saving $600,000 per year in energy costs), to Organic Valley and a wind-turbine partnership, to working with La Crosse County to tap methane from the county landfill as an energy source, to providing unused cafeteria food to Salvation Army.

It’s a healthy reminder that collaboration pays off.

“A lot of things we want to do from population health aspect we can’t do by ourselves. So we need expertise and community partnerships,” Rathgaber says. “We do that in homelessness, opioid addiction, adverse childhood experiences, so we love having partnerships with those folks who have the knowledge, and we work together with them. That’s the only way we can solve those complex problems.”

Corey Zarecki, director of engineering and operations for Envision, refers to these partnerships as “two-sided green.”

“We were fortunate enough to see the relationship between the environment and the local economy and the health of patients before sustainability was a buzzword.”

As Rathgaber says: “We like partnerships where everybody wins.”

Gundersen’s sustainability success should remind all of us that collaboration can be crucial to reaching the confluence of doing good while doing well.

Our region is blessed with so many examples of teamwork building a stronger region.

And Gundersen has shown that investing in regional partnerships can pay off in many healthy ways.

– La Crosse Tribune

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