Hearing aids could soon be available over the counter thanks to a bipartisan bill passed in 2017. The regulations are still being finalized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but the much-needed OTC hearing aids are expected to save consumers hundreds–if not thousands–of dollars.
Medicare coverage of hearing aids
Original Medicare does not cover hearing aids, but some Medicare Advantage plans might. However, two-thirds of seniors have Original Medicare, meaning the majority of people who need hearing aids are going without.
But coverage is not the only obstacle. Obtaining hearing aids can be a complicated, drawn-out process. It often requires an appointment with a hearing specialist, tests to check your hearing, fittings for the equipment, and the hearing aids themselves.
Lack of coverage and an overly complicated process means that only 20 to 30 percent of people who need hearing aids have them. This bipartisan bill fills that Medicare coverage gap.
The Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017 was written by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and co-sponsored by Congress members like Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Representative Joe Kennedy III (D-MA).
The idea behind the bill is to create “generic” versions of hearing aids, removing price barriers, streamline the process, and make them available to the people who need them most. Warren said, “By passing this legislation and making some hearing aids available over the counter, we will increase competition, spur innovation, and bring down prices.”
One stipulation of the bill, however, is that these OTC hearing aids are meant for people with mild to moderate hearing loss. Treating severe hearing loss may require more powerful devices and regular doctor visits to receive adjustments and monitoring.
FDA guidelines and timelines
Although you may see some inexpensive hearing aids available from retail stores or pharmacies near you, the FDA warns that these have not been regulated by the government agency.
Their website reads, “At this time, there are no products that can claim to address hearing loss that are, or can claim to be OTC hearing aids… Currently, hearing aids continue to be restricted devices, for which salves must follow applicable federal and state requirements.”
The FDA has until August 2020 to finalize their regulations and guidelines for OTC hearing aids. After that, doctors and the public are allowed to weigh in on them before they are finalized and passed along to manufacturers.