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Greater access to good hearing

New bill could make hearing aids available over the counter

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February 16th, 2017
Hand holding a hearing aid
Hand holding a hearing ad

Over 37 million American adults suffer from some degree of hearing loss. Not surprisingly, the older you are, the more likely you are to have trouble hearing. Twenty-five percent of adults 60–69 years of age, half of those 70–79 years, and almost 80% of those older than 80 have difficulty hearing. 

Even mild hearing loss impacts a person’s ability to communicate, contributes to social isolation, and can lead to other health issues such as depression and even cognitive decline. 

However, the vast majority of those suffering from hearing loss do not seek help. Of those who could benefit from wearing hearing aids, only 16% of people younger than 69 and 30% of people over the age of 70 have used them.

High costs

There are a number of reasons people avoid using hearing aids. Some don’t want the bother, others are embarrassed by how they look, but the greatest deterrent by far is the cost. Hearing aids can cost well over $2,000 apiece, and 80% of people with hearing loss require two devices. Furthermore, as it stands now, hearing aids can only be obtained through a licensed physician, which can be prohibitively expensive given that many insurance plans, including Medicare, don’t cover hearing aids or even most hearing tests.

An alternative to hearing aids, “personal sound amplification devices” (PSADs) can be purchased without a doctor’s prescription. Inexpensive models start at about $30 with better models going for $500 or more. They can be especially helpful for people with mild to moderate hearing loss, but because PSADs may not, by law, be marketed as something that “treats, cures, or mitigates a disease,” many people who could benefit from using them, don’t.   

Bipartisan bill

A new bipartisan bill known as The Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2016 is currently making its way through Congress. If it passes, obtaining a hearing aid will become much easier and more affordable. 

Introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the bill is supported by the Hearing Loss Association of America, AARP, and the Gerontological Society of America. It essentially redefines the language used to market PSADs and would open up the consumer marketplace to new innovative technologies that help people hear.

As the name implies, the bill makes hearing aids available over the counter. It also gives consumers the freedom to visit an audiologist, get a prescription for a hearing aid, and then shop around for the best price—much the same way people obtain contact lenses. 

“I hear from Iowans about the high cost of hearing aids, and I understand the concern,” says Grassley. “If you can buy nonprescription reading glasses over the counter, it makes sense that you should be able to buy basic, safe hearing aids too. The goal is that by making more products more easily available to consumers, competition will increase and lead to lower costs. More consumer choice and convenience are what we want to accomplish with this legislation.”

“Millions of people in Massachusetts and across the country experience hearing loss as they get older but are unable to get the hearing aids they need because of high costs and complicated regulations,” says Warren. “This bipartisan bill is a simple fix that will make hearing aids easier to access and, unlike in the current marketplace, will make it easier for consumers to shop for the best value.”

Another option

However, not everyone supports the legislation, including groups like the American Academy of Audiology and the International Hearing Society. 

The American Academy of Audiology expressed its concerns in a written statement. “This legislation addresses only access to the device, yet access to hearing health care and treatment for hearing loss extends far beyond the device itself. Audiologic care includes assessment and diagnosis of hearing loss, determination of the etiology of the loss and the impact on communicative function, and the development of a comprehensive treatment plan that may or may not include an amplification device.”

While this bill makes hearing aids more readily available, it does not address the high cost of hearing aids or the fact that most audiologic care is not covered by Medicare. 

As it stands now, Medicare is forbidden from covering or negotiating better hearing aid prices for consumers. A revision to that law would make a profound difference for consumers. 

For example, the Department of Veterans Affairs can negotiate with manufacturers for significantly lower costs. In 2014, that department provided hearing care to more than 900,000 veterans and dispensed over 800,000 hearing aids at an average cost of $400 per unit.

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