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Seniors Are 100% Citizens Again Under EPA

U.S. drops practice of valuing younger lives more when figuring anti-pollution benefits.

May 08, 2003|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

BALTIMORE — The Bush administration has "discontinued" the controversial practice of valuing young lives more than older ones for purposes of computing the costs and benefits of pollution controls, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman said Wednesday.

The practice, nicknamed the "senior discount," devalued the lives of people 65 and older by 37% compared with everyone else.

Whitman said it had never been used to actually formulate policy. It had merely provided an extra selling point for some pollution control proposals, EPA officials said.

Whitman and other EPA officials had heard mounting criticism of the senior discount during the first five stops on a six-city "listening tour" of America to hear seniors' environmental concerns, most recently in Los Angeles last week.

She announced the end of the practice at the final stop Wednesday in Baltimore.

"I'm not in the business of putting a price on life -- young or old," Whitman said.

EPA's chief economist, Al McGartland, said the senior discount was dropped because it was "objectionable at some fundamental level."

The calculations used by government economists to weigh costs and benefits of proposed policies rarely reach the public.

But they have a growing effect on decisions by government officials at all levels, and the controversy over the senior discount emphasizes how uncomfortable the public can become when such priceless intangibles as human health and life are reduced to mathematical formulas.

"Applications of cost-benefit analysis to public health regulations will always be somewhat controversial, but we have to make sure we're saving as many lives and as many years of life as we can with the available resources," said John Graham, the overseer of government regulations at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Graham said his office had asked the EPA not to use the so-called senior discount in the formulation of a policy proposal aimed at reducing pollution from tractors, bulldozers and other diesel vehicles not used on roads. That proposal was announced last month.

Graham said he changed his mind about the senior discount after several professors had contacted him, arguing persuasively that it should not be used.

Although the White House is abandoning the senior discount, it expects the EPA to produce a different way of weighing costs and benefits that estimates years of life gained or lost as a result of a policy change. This is known as the life expectancy method.

The EPA's traditional cost-benefit analysis, in contrast, looks only at the estimated number of lives extended or cut short, regardless of how long.

Whitman said the EPA would make the calculations the White House sought.

But she vowed that the alternative analysis had not and would not even "influence" her decisions.

"We don't think it's as appropriate for the work that we do," Whitman said.

Graham said the OMB had looked at the results of both the traditional and alternative analyses.

Federal agencies were first authorized to use the life expectancy method in 1996 in the Clinton administration. The Food and Drug Administration and some other agencies now use the life expectancy method routinely, Graham said.

Environmentalists said that even without the senior discount, the life expectancy method discounted seniors' lives.

"[A] change in valuing life in terms of life-years could seriously devalue the life of the elderly and slant decisions against rules that would protect them," several environmental groups said in a letter to OMB.

"Each is a different manifestation of the same objectionable policy of devaluing the lives of Americans in order to reduce the benefits of health protections and thereby weaken health protections," said John Walke, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Graham defended the life expectancy method, saying it "does not always or necessarily reduce the benefits of environmental regulations." In fact, he said, it could count the average value of saving a year of an older person's life as greater than a younger person's.

For example, the alternative analysis for the tractor and bulldozer regulation yielded $434,000 as the value of saving a year of life for someone older than 65. The value of saving a year of life for a person younger than 65 was $172,000.

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