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What is the Price of a Human Life? What Dick Cheney’s Heart Transplant Says About Healthcare Decisions

Updated on March 30, 2012

Think about the person you love the most. Your mom. Your spouse. Your child. Your best friend. Now imagine that this person has a limited time to live. How much would you pay to extend his or her life a year? A month? A day? An hour?

Now think about someone you’ve never met. How much would you pay to extend that person’s life?

Healthcare Decisions

Every day, our healthcare system makes choices about what potentially life-saving tests and procedures are worth paying for. Not too long ago, a heated debate was sparked when recommendations came out that mammograms should be optional for women under 50. From a cost-benefit perspective, it made sense. Mammograms are costly and result in false positives, biopsies, and sometimes unncecessary treatment. But if you were one of the women who had been saved from advanced breast cancer or death because of early detection, this recommendation would be an outrage.

Poll: What do you think?

Politics aside, was Dick Cheney’s heart transplant worth it?

See results

Dick Cheney’s heart transplant in March brings up similar issues. He is 71 years old and has survived 5 heart attacks, and yet he just received a heart transplant estimated at $1,000,000. Was it worth it? For his wife and family, the answer would be a resounding “Yes.” From the viewpoint of how our healthcare system can sustain itself, the wisdom of this costly procedure may seem questionable.

International Value of Human Life

International standards used by private and government-run health insurance plans estimate the worth of life at $50,000 per year. That is, a procedure should not be covered by insurance if it costs more than $50,000 to extend a life for a one year.

In the US, treatment decisions are often made based on an individual healthcare professional’s assessment of whether the treatment is appropriate and beneficial. While other factors, such as rules of private health insurers and health-care providing organizations, play a role, oftentimes patient and doctor preference is paramount.

Cost-Benefit Analysis for Determining Care

The idea of putting a price tag on human life seems morally objectionable. Yet, decisions about what medical procedures are worth paying for do exactly that. From a purely practical standpoint, given that there is no limitless pot of money from which to draw, there simply has to be some metric by which we measure whether or not an individual should receive a certain treatment.

But how can we put a dollar value on the extra life that an individual is given? Is an extra year worth $10,000, $100,000, or $1,000,000? What about an extra day? Could that same money be used to save 100 other lives or prevent debilitating diseases in another dozen?

Limiting coverage for certain tests and procedures also results in an unfair system that favors the very rich (who may be able to pay for services on their own and thereby extend their lives), while penalizing just about everyone else (who may run themselves dry in an effort to cover expensive healthcare costs on their own).

Reconciling Different Standards

When thinking about saving a loved one’s life, most of us would pay any price necessary to do so. It’s different when it’s someone we don’t know: many people are loathe to see their health insurance premiums rise to benefit strangers.

In the end, we simply don’t apply the same standards to strangers as we do to people we know and love. Should we?


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    • john000 profile image

      John R Wilsdon 

      6 years ago from Superior, Arizona

      So much emotion is involved with the healthcare decisions that need to be made. The subject makes me uncomfortable - it seems sometimes we must act like gods. This was a worthy analysis. Voted up.

    • LauraGT profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from MA

      Unnamed Herald, thanks for reading and commenting! I agree, there is so much misinformation out there about the European system. And, yet, Europeans have perks we'd never dream of... a nurse coming to help at the house after a baby is born? Better health outcomes a lot of the time too. Don't get me started on infant mortality rates...

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 

      6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Very nice article, lauragt. Thought-provoking. I also wonder at the Europe-bashing. Per-capita they pay thousands less per year and they have better health care, generally speaking. If you're wealthy or have the best health insurance, US healthcare is top-notch. I suspect the animosity to European "socialism" (code word for "communism" in the US) is fueled by the health care/insurance sector, the wealthy and ignorance (those affeared of big gummint). On the other hand, if any gummint could screw up a national healthcare plan, ours could. Very discouraging. I will now take my soapbox elsewhere.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      If my mother was above the 50 years , and had a bad head sickness that would require an transplantaton , and a new heart, which would require that much money, i would rather see the money go to people in poor countries, who got no health care what so ever. IMO , its quite selfish , to take such a huge package of money from the tax paying people, if your at a certain age ( think 50-60-70 and up) , yes, 50 years is not considered old. But when i see people dieing on an age WAY lower then that from dieases that require less then 5% of the amount used to get a new hearth, its unfair and outragous. What about the people who never get any sickness ? they are litterily paying taxes for no use.

      My family (we talk about 60 years , Grandfather and down, cousins etc) have had used less then 10.000 dollars worth of hospitilization, and paid in taxes ( livving in denmark there is 48% tax for people making less then about 45k dollars a year , 60% tax for people making above 45((starting from 45k and up )) there is alot of million dollars from one family hold , that we have benefitted nothing from.

      LauraGT, Its not European healthcare which is like this, Countries is different over here, Example, In Denmark EVERYONE MUST pay for healthcare((interigated with tax), Life insurance, House insurance. , IF you buy a car, you need life insurance , ((This is AFTER tax))

      For the Danish health care is pretty good ( obviously everyone has it so everyone gets it (( wait time is too long becaurse, Since everyone must pay, everyone want to get , So minor wounds,injuries etc would be taken care of ((Even if you have really big breasts, and they scientificly can hurt your back over years, its free to get them reduced( my mother had it done)

      Life is not invalureable. Its just as much worth, as the individual CAN make or HAS made their life... Deserve or not deserve, thats up to our self to apply this conclusion.

      Like you wrote, I would gladly pay for my mother, But i would not pay for yours( since I dont know her)

      Then again. This would add to alot of other subjects.

      Is it a humane right to be let in jail, if the jailed person is guilty of murder ?

      Should a person doing major harrasment to the public(and following it , people losing their home etc )think rich people taking poor peoples homes, or other.

      If i said a murder in jail costs 30-40k dollar a year to hold in jail, would a 0,2 cent bullet to the head not be a better option? If he would had to stay in jail for 40 or more years ? ((shit thats alot money for a single jailed person, who already is a criminal))

      Just my 2 cent :).

      PS. Sorry for misspellings , etc Im not a native english speaker :).

    • LauraGT profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from MA

      Molometer, thanks for the UK perspective. The "European" healthcare systems is so horribly portrayed in the US, as if no one ever gets any care, much less quality care. It would be great if Americans could really understand different systems and their benefits and how we could learn from them to improve our system. Re: your question, there are many excellent doctors in the US who truly care about improving health, but yes, they do tend to make a tremendous amount of money!

    • molometer profile image


      6 years ago from United Kingdom

      We are fortunate in the UK to have a health care system second to none.

      It is financed by all adult workers through our taxes.

      Whatever your need it will be taken care of.

      Health care costs overseas are astronomical.

      Maybe the way to go, is to get the doctors and drug companies to reduce their prices.

      Being a doctor in the US is portrayed as the road to riches?

      Is that why doctors become doctors? for the money?

      Dick should pay for his new heart. He should give the money to the donors family

    • LauraGT profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from MA

      Thanks homesteadpatch. Interesting observation about annual household income. It's hard to reconcile the idea that life has no monetary value, but that we sometimes have to put a price on it when thinking about medical interventions. Another interesting angle on the Cheney front is that he is a multi-millionaire who likely could have afforded this on his own, but that's another whole hub!

    • homesteadpatch profile image


      6 years ago from Michigan

      I agree with conradofontanella, gold and money, in and of themselves have no value. It's only because we think they hold value. And life itself is priceless. As to how much I would spend, the answer is whatever I could afford. While it may seem callus, I believe there may have been better candidates to receive the heart they gave the former VP. But at least he finally has one... The insurance companies figure of $50,000 is very close to the median household income of a household in the USA. That figure tells me they think we are worth what we make in a year. That fact, all by itself, is worthy of note. Voted up.

    • LauraGT profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from MA

      Interesting, conradofontanella. People have always brought utility - in earlier times, people's utility was perhaps measured by their ability to work in the field. Utility in modern society would perhaps be more accurately measured by "added value" going back into society. Another hub idea is brimming... ;)

    • conradofontanilla profile image


      6 years ago from Philippines

      Life is invaluable. It is only man who puts value in terms of money to life. It's unlike gold. Gold in itself does not have value. It is man who puts value to it because of her/his liking it, that is its utility. But does a woman or man arrive in this world because of utility?

    • LauraGT profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from MA

      Reviewthelaw, thanks for reading. Another interesting way we estimate worth. We also do it when buying life insurance all the time. Hmmm....

    • reviewthelaw profile image


      6 years ago from Newport Beach , California , 92660 United States

      Informative post. I never thought a person's life can be estimated. I guess this has been the basis for assessing compensation for wrongful death claims.


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