Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, believes putting a dollar value on human lives is the key to health care reform. Placing a value on human life will enable us to ration health care to get the "most bang for your buck" by denying life-extending medication to someone who's terminal because that money is better spent treating someone who is not terminal. It will be more efficient.
Everywhere you look, people are debating health care reform, what it should look like, what it shouldn't look like and last weekend, Singer, wrote a piece for the New York Times Magazine called "Why We Must Ration Health Care." In it, he discusses allocation of resources and theoretical computations of the value of a human life. His leading example involves a drug called Sutent that can extend the life of someone with terminal kidney cancer for the cost of approximately $50,000. The question is how much is too much to pay for six months more of life.
I've seen this before, applying market theory to health care, using the terminally ill to illustrate the cost and not very subtly suggest that at a certain point, it's too much money, that it is not worth it to allocate scarce resources to merely extend life a few months. And it makes me wonder what such people would think of the cost of keeping me moving. Sutent costs approximately $50,000. The annual bill for Humira can be around $40,000. Not just once, but every year. For many years. What would these columnists, ethicists and economists say to that?
What is a life worth? Is it harder to assess when the person we are talking about is not in a life or death situation, but is bedridden in excruciating pain or out there living their life? Whether the opinion is that of an ethicist or economist or the person living down the street, I suspect there might be an idea about how much is too much. And as I've been thinking about this, a certain phrase keeps popping into my mind: the arrogance of the healthy.
The healthy never quite believe that illness or disability can happen to them. It is a tragedy that happens to other people, but they eat right, don't smoke, exercise and somehow, this lends a shield against illness behind which they can smugly assert that there is such a thing as paying too much for getting your life back.
But what do you get when you pay thousands of dollars to give someone back their life? I live in Canada where we have universal health care. My meds are paid for by The Trillium Drug Program, a government program that helps people with high medication costs relative to their income get the drugs they need (54% of Americans with a chronic illness report not filling a prescription because they couldn't afford it). In my case, the taxpayers of the province of Ontario spend thousands of dollars every year on my medication and this means I am actively involved with my family again, I laugh again and I make my own lunch again. However, I suspect these are too personal to change an opinion. What might change opinions, though, is that as a result of spending thousands of dollars on my medication every year, I have a job again, a job that pays me money of which I pay taxes, which can be used to help someone else like me get back their life, earn a salary again and pay taxes and... You get the idea.