White House may put less value on seniors, disabled

By Dana Wilkie
May 17, 2003

WASHINGTON - After senior citizens raised a ruckus, Environmental
Protection Agency Administrator
Christie Whitman said last week that her agency's rule makers would stop
calculating the lives of the
elderly as less valuable than those of younger people.
But if the White House has its way, future regulations could be based on
similar calculations that not
only place less value on the lives of seniors, but also on the lives of the
disabled and the sick.
A document prepared by John Graham, President Bush's "regulatory czar,"
urges all federal agencies to
weigh the cost of new regulations against how many years they might add to
people's lives - a
calculation that tends to give less weight to older people with fewer years
ahead of them.
Critics insist that Graham also wants agencies to give less weight to
people with a questionable
"quality of life," presumably those who are disabled or ill.
"Once government puts itself in the position of saying, 'We're going to
give more support to policies
that care for young people,' you're basically saying old people and the
sick and disabled - it's not
cost-effective to save them anymore," said Wesley Warren, an environmental
economist for the Natural
Resources Defense Council and a former associate director of the Office of
Management and Budget where
Graham works.
Graham acknowledged that the document - a proposed "how-to" manual on
cost-benefit analysis - encourages
two approaches for reviewing new rules that protect the environment and
public health, among other
One, the traditional approach, assigns the same value to all lives that
might benefit from a regulation;
the other assigns different values depending on age.
"OMB believes each method has advantages and limitations, and thus the
results of both methods should be
presented to policy-makers," Graham said in an interview.
Graham's attempt to put a price tag on what some consider priceless has a
political purpose, critics
said: By placing less value on whole categories of Americans, it is easier
for the Republican White
House - which often views regulations as an expensive burden on business -
to argue that the cost of a
new rule outweighs the public benefit.
As director of OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the
46-year-old Graham rules on all
major health, safety and environmental standards.
While a Harvard professor, he became a celebrated cost-benefit expert who
often questioned the way
government regulated pollutants.
Since joining the Bush White House in 2001, Graham has urged the EPA to use
what critics call the
"senior death discount" when considering new rules to reduce pollution from
power plants, snowmobiles
and off-road vehicles.
The discount considered the lives of those 70 and older as 37 percent less
valuable than those of
younger people.
After seniors and environmentalists protested, Whitman said on May 7 that
the practice would stop.
Another approach
Graham said the calculation would not be used for now, leaving the
impression that age would no longer
be a regulatory consideration.
But according to the manual the White House is now reviewing, Graham wants
federal agencies to use
another approach that considers age: This one weighs the cost of a new rule
against how many years it
might add to a person's life.
"It is precisely because seniors have relatively few life years remaining
that (we) have an obligation
to make sure that their preferences are weighed carefully in regulatory
analysis," said Graham. He noted
that the approach values each year of life for someone over 65 at $273,000,
and for someone younger at
Even so, the older person's overall value is still less, because he or she
has fewer years to live: A
65-year-old with 10 years left is worth $2.7 million, while the 40-year-old
with 35 years left is worth
$6 million.
Harvard public health economist Milton Weinstein said this calculation is
widely used in the medical
"Whereas the 20-year-old might benefit . . . when they get to be 70 or 80,
they will be in the same boat
as people who are now 70 or 80," Weinstein said. "If you think of it as
resource-allocation over a life
cycle, that takes some of the anti-elderly edge off of it."
But the 35-million-member AARP considers it "flat-out discriminatory," said
Jo Reed, an expert on
federal consumer matters for AARP, an organization that looks after the
interests of people over 50.
"This has very significant implications for public policy, but the public
doesn't fully understand what
(Graham) is" doing, Reed said.
Rules vs. benefits
More onerous, critics said, is that Graham wants agencies to place less
value on people whose lives may
be diminished because of disability or sickness.
Graham said in an interview that he wants agencies to use this approach in
some calculations, but not
when weighing the cost of new rules against the benefits.
But just 18 months ago, Graham pushed for precisely that in a report to the
National Academy of
In his report, Graham acknowledged that the approach "raises concerns about
fairness to the disabled and
the elderly." But he gave several reasons for supporting it.
"If person 'A' lives 10 additional life years in good health, while person
'B' lives 10 additional life
years with 30 percent impaired health, it may not be appropriate to assign
the same (value) to both
individuals," Graham wrote.
He said his plan to place different values on American lives is similar to
suggestions made under former
Democratic President Clinton. He said his office would not force agencies
to use the calculations.
But Graham puts a much stronger emphasis on the approach than did Clinton
officials, who allowed
agencies to use age factors, but were openly skeptical of them.
In the proposed guidelines, Graham tells agencies they should use age
adjustments, as well as a
traditional approach, "in all instances, whether or not you are able to
develop ideal estimates."
Warren, who worked at the Office of Management and Budget under Clinton,
said most agencies would
consider this a requirement. "The OMB has the final word," Warren said.
"Any agency that doesn't do
this, when they come over and argue for their regulation, they'll be
challenged for an incomplete