The Value of a Human Life

Did you ever wonder, “What is the value of human life?” If so, you are in good company. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan wrote, “The real question is not when life begins, but: ‘What is the value of a human life?’”

The question intrigued me. Of course, we all agree that human life is both precious and finite, but can we put a dollar value on a human life? Some scientists have estimated that the chemicals in a human body are worth about $160, but that is not what I’m interested in. I think we all agree a human life is worth more than the value of its chemical components.

The federal government has an interest in this question, too. Different agencies have set different values on a human life. The Environmental Protection Agency set the value of a life at $9.1 million in 2010. The Food and Drug Administration, on the other hand, came up with a value of $7.9 million and finally, the Transportation Department said it was around $6 million.

These numbers are a little old, and I wanted a more current valuation. Fortunately, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) obliged. At McConnell’s direction, the Senate Republicans drafted the Better Care Reconciliation Act to answer this question. The new legislation, if signed into law, would make changes to the Affordable Care Act that the Congressional Budget Office estimates will result in 22 million Americans losing health insurance coverage. The BCRA would save the federal government $321 billion over a 10-year period.

A study published in the medical journal the Annals of Internal Medicine last month estimates that for every 1 million persons losing insurance, 1,300 persons will die annually. That means that over a 10-year period 268,000 persons will die if this bill becomes law.

By simply dividing the savings in dollars by the number of deaths, we derive a current value for an American life at about $1.2 million. That is far less than previous estimates, but now we know at least what McConnell and Senate Republicans believe a life is worth. And we can use this information for other important budgetary issues. Clearly, under the more current value of a human life we can see that the EPA is spending 7.5 times more than it needs to spend to cleaning up our environment, the FDA spends 6.6 times more than it needs to making sure we have safe drugs and finally the Transportation Department spends five times more than it should to make sure that our highways are safe.

As you can see, not only does McConnell’s BCRA dramatically roll back funding for hospitals and insurance companies to cover more people, and slash funding for Medicaid — a program which disproportionately helps poor and low-income Americans — but it also devalues human life as a whole. And with the value of a life now redefined, will Senate Republicans next move to make massive cuts to the Transportation Department highway safety programs, or the Food and Drug Administration’s food safety programs?

Thank you, Sen. McConnell, for finally settling this question and resetting the price tag on an American life.


Dr. J. Mario Molina is the president of the Molina Medical Group and former CEO of Molina Healthcare. The opinions expressed are his own.

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