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Senior Death Discount' Assailed; Critics Decry Making Regulations Based on Devaluing Elderly Lives
Published on Thursday, May 8, 2003 by the New York Times
'Senior Death Discount' Assailed
Critics Decry Making Regulations Based on Devaluing Elderly Lives
by Katharine Q. Seelye and John Tierney
 

BALTIMORE -- A Bush administration policy to base some regulations on a calculation that the life of each person older than 70 should be valued less than the life of a younger person has antagonized older Americans and environmental groups and stirred tensions between federal agencies.

Instead of making the traditional assumption that all lives saved from cleaner air are worth the same, administration officials in three environmental studies included an alternative method using two values: $3.7 million for the life a person younger than 70, but only $2.3 million for an older person, a difference of 37 percent.

Critics deride the policy as the "senior death discount," and argue that the administration is callously turning on older Americans as a rationale for weakening environmental regulations.

Yesterday, Christie Whitman, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, asserted that her agency had never actually applied the policy in its decision-making and never would. "The senior discount factor has been stopped; it has been discontinued," she said.

John Graham, the regulations chief at the Office of Management and Budget who has been the administration's champion of the policy, said the calculation would not be used for now because it was based on an old study. But he insisted he remains committed to the principle of analyzing how many years of life will be added by a particular measure, not simply the number of lives.

The life-expectancy approach could bolster the case for health measures benefiting children, he said, and in some cases it could be of help to the elderly. "It can distinguish a regulation that may extend senior citizens' life by for five or 10 years, compared to a regulation that will extend their life by only one year," he said.

This type of age-adjusted analysis, intended to identify policies that would add the most years to people's lives, also accompanied two cost-benefit analyses during the Clinton administration.

But critics say it has been used more aggressively under the leadership of Graham, who is disliked by environmentalists and who has been urging rigorous cost-benefit analyses on all federal agencies.

For more than a month, the elderly and environmental groups have protested at hearings on the relatively arcane cost-benefit methodology. The debate over the "death discount" provides a window into tensions between Whitman's agency and Graham's, tensions worsened by Graham's broad power and authority. At stake are billions of dollars -- and thousands of lives -- as the government weighs the costs that regulating pollution would impose on industry against the benefits to health and the environment.

Environmentalists say the problem with Graham's approach is that it inflates the costs of regulations and diminishes the perceived benefits, thus making it easier for the administration to propose rules that go easy on industry.

Carol Browner, a Clinton-era EPA administrator, said that under the traditional method, a particular air pollution regulation was shown to have benefits of $77 billion but that under Graham's method, it was shown to have benefits of only $8 billion. "They are adjusting the calculations to say that the benefits of less pollution are much lower," she said. Although similar analyses were conducted in her tenure, she said, no decisions were based on them.

Graham, the former director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, said the age-adjusted analysis was being used merely to provide extra guidance, not set policy.

Other experts in risk analysis said there were valid moral and practical reasons for giving priority to policies protecting younger people because those policies add the most years of life, but those arguments are not easy for politicians to make when confronting elderly voters.

©1996-2003 New York Times

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