Medicare: Moving Forward to Less Expensive Hearing Aids

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Doctor inserting hearing aid in senior's ear

More than 50 years ago, Congress banned Medicare coverage for hearing aids. People saw hearing as a normal part of aging instead of a disability or a medical problem. We know now that hearing problems can cause you some serious issues.

Almost two-thirds of Americans older than 70 have meaningful hearing loss, experts say, and you may be among them.

The average price for hearing aids is roughly $2,500, often more — and most of us need two. This clarifies why only 20 percent of those with hearing loss use hearing aids.

Medicare declines to cover a number of products and services that seniors need, like dental and hearing care.

Although things are rough now, it’s inspiring to notice some recent developments that might lead to more rational policies and more affordable and accessible devices.

As reported by Paula Span of The New York Times,

An October report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recommended federal actions to “simultaneously decrease the cost of hearing aids, spur technology innovation and increase consumer choice options.”

The council suggested, for example, that the Food and Drug Administration permit a “basic” hearing aid, for mild to moderate age-related hearing loss, to be sold over the counter — something every state prohibits.

 The report also urged the Federal Trade Commission, whose rulings enabled consumers to comparison shop for eyeglasses and contact lenses, to treat hearing devices more like visual ones. “It should be like a prescription for eyeglasses,” said Dr. Christine Cassel, a co-chairwoman of the council’s hearing technologies working group.

The hearing aid itself represents only about a third of what audiologists charge. (Medicare does cover testing with a physician’s referral.)

 After an audiologist or physician provides an audiogram assessing your hearing, Dr. Cassel said, you should be able “to take it with you and shop around for the best prices” on devices.

 In June, the Institute of Medicine will issue a report on hearing health that tackles key questions like federal regulation, insurance and price. A number of major players — among them the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute on Aging and the Pentagon — have sponsored the yearlong effort.

 The F.D.A., acting on recommendations by the president’s council, will host a public workshop next month to consider whether its hearing aid regulations “may hinder innovation, reduce competition and lead to increased cost and reduced use.”

We can only hope that these actions represent a greater national focus on hearing loss and hearing therapy.

According to studies in the United States and Finland, older adults (age 40- 69) with poor hearing report a greater number of falls than those with normal hearing.

They are also more likely to report periods of poor physical and mental health, and can even be hospitalized.

What is even more alarming is studies also show a relationship between hearing loss and accelerated rates of cognitive decline. Older people with hearing loss are also more likely than those with normal hearing to develop dementia.

According to The New York Times, “It’s clearly possible to provide good devices for far less than we now pay. The Department of Veterans Affairs, which negotiates with manufacturers for lower prices, provided comprehensive hearing care to more than 900,000 veterans in 2014 and dispensed almost 800,000 hearing aids without copays. The average cost per device: $400.”

It’s time to face the serious problem of high hearing costs with Medicare. Overwhelmed by the multiple visits, the adjustments, along with the costs, people wait for years to get the care they so desperately need, while their hearing worsens.

It’s important that you address your hearing lost as early as possible. The longer you wait, the harder rehabilitation will be.

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