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