The Cost of Life

Mark Thoma links to a medical paper that brings up the issue that few people want to talk about: at what point is the cost of medical care to extend life not justified? Like Thoma, I don’t have a great answer, except to point out that in a world of scarce resources, the answer cannot be that any effort to extend life by any small amount is always a good idea. (And as David Leonhardt explained, our health care system is certainly constrained by scarce resources, whether we like it or not.)

I just have one observation and one recommendation.

The observation is that our political and legal systems already put price tags on life routinely. If you die on the job, the workers’ compensation system calculates how much your life was worth; if you are killed as a result of someone else’s negligence, the tort system does the same. In either case, the calculation is primarily based on your expected earnings for the rest of the life; in other words, young high-earners are worth more than old poor people. And for virtually everyone, the number you end up with is much less than the value implied by the cancer treatment discussed in the paper Thoma cites.

I’m no fan of that system. I’m just surprised that as a society we can be so brutal and inegalitarian in one sphere and so touchy in another (health care, where the thought that any life-extending treatment might be too expensive is probably considered morally abhorrent by most people).

The recommendation is that if you are interested in this issue, you should listen to Dr. Robert Martensen on Fresh Air. Martensen is not only a doctor and a bioethicist, but at the time of the interview I believe (my memory might be failing me) he was dealing with the imminent death of one of his parents, and the medical choices involved.


Originally published at The Baseline Scenario and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

2 Responses to "The Cost of Life"

  1. George Harter   July 2, 2009 at 3:28 am

    Medical issues will not be brought to a nice happy financial ending. I believe the realistic view is that more peoplke will be dropped from the commercial system of health care medical costs will be held at 20% GDP which will cover 10%fewer people each year.By 2018-2022, welfare medical systems will collapse on a state, local, Federal levels. At that point the nation will address social finances and how our medicalsystem will perform triage on the indigent cases,a growing portion of the US population.George HarterBaghdadontheHudson, USA

  2. gonetcm   July 5, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    When considering “at what point is the cost of medical care to extend life not justified,” many choose to consider the “quality of life” that may be attained by this extension. Who aside from the individual whose health is in question, is able to decide justly what quality of life is acceptable and what is not?Who decides who shall live and who shall die?Is it the decision of God, the individual and his/her family, the insurer, or of the State?