By Frank Lin, Charlotte Yeh, and Christine Cassel Aug. 6, 2021
This article was originally published by STAT on www.statnews.com.
When Anne Madison noticed her hearing was declining at age 66, she struggled. She had always prided herself on being a savvy health care consumer, but when it came to hearing loss, what were her options? Ads for hearing aids seemed predatory, visits to an audiologist for objective professional advice about how to address hearing loss weren’t covered by Medicare, and since Medicare also didn’t cover hearing aids, the price tag was far out of her reach.
This story, which Anne told one of us (F.L.), is a common one. Hearing loss affects more than 40 million Americans, including two-thirds of all adults over age 70, and is understood to be the leading risk factor contributing to the development of dementia. Because a pair of hearing aids costs a prohibitive $4,700 on average, less than 20% of people who would benefit from hearing aids actually have them. Millions of Americans could potentially improve their health and lead better lives if hearing aids and related hearing care services were more affordable and easily accessible.
There’s good news: In 2017, Congress passed a bipartisan bill instructing the Food and Drug Administration to make certain hearing aids available over the counter, and the White House recently issued an executive order instructing the FDA to release the long-delayed regulations for these new aids within the next 120 days. Once finalized, these regulations will encourage consumer technology companies already producing innovative hearing technologies such as Bose and Apple to enter the hearing aid market, increasing competition in a stagnant marketplace currently dominated by just five manufacturers and making these life-changing devices drastically more accessible.
But there’s also bad news: While consumers may soon be able to directly purchase more affordable hearing aids, many still won’t have access to the audiological support services needed to ensure they can fully benefit from these devices. Such support services are often essential to help individuals overcome a poor understanding of their hearing loss (a common refrain from such individuals is “My hearing is fine! My wife just mumbles at me all the time.”) or without the technological savvy to learn how to use a hearing aid on their own.
At present, Medicare provides coverage for hearing tests but not for such hearing treatment or hearing aid-related services, leading to the sad paradox that an older person could see an audiologist to be diagnosed with hearing loss but not receive the hearing aids or essential treatment services needed to address it.
Current efforts in Congress spurred by President Biden’s budget request for the 2022 fiscal year calling for Medicare coverage for hearing services — along with coverage for vision and dental services — would address this anachronism. That would be important not only for seniors with traditional Medicare but also for anyone with private health insurance or Medicare Advantage plans, which often follow the cues of Medicare policy.
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