Nearly half of all Medicare beneficiaries live with some degree of hearing loss. If you’re part of this statistic, you may be wondering what your options are for hearing aids, like style, features, and Medicare coverage.
Importance of healthy hearing
Hearing loss makes it difficult to communicate with your friends, family, and doctors, and directly affects your health. Even having mild hearing loss can create social isolation, which studies have shown to increase risk of death by at least 50 percent, nearly as high as the risk posed by smoking.
The inner ear plays a major role in our ability to balance, so having mild to moderate hearing loss can triple your risk of falling. The worse your hearing is, the higher your chances are of falling and risking injury. Correcting your hearing loss is the first step in safeguarding your health, but you can also consider a medical alert system with automatic fall detection.
Styles of hearing aids
The style of hearing aid you’ll need will be based on the degree of your hearing loss. If your doctor gives you an option between different styles, you’ll need to take several things into consideration. Do you choose something small with better sound quality and discretion, or do you choose a more powerful and expensive style made for an active lifestyle?
Hearing aid styles include:
- Invisible-in-the-canal (IIC)
- Completely-in-canal (CIC)
- In-the-canal (ITC)
- In-the-ear (ITE)
- Receiver-in-canal or receiver-in-the-ear (RIC/RITE)
Each style offers different features. For example, in-canal options are good for people with mild hearing loss because they are smaller and therefore less powerful than other styles. Larger styles like RIC/RITE and BTE may be less discreet, but they’re easier to handle if you have trouble with dexterity and need more hearing assistance.
Invisible hearing aid
Due to their near invisibility, many people will opt for an invisible hearing aid if the degree of their hearing loss allows. In-canal hearing aids are a great option if you have mild hearing loss or would like your hearing aid to be less visible. Here are some pros and cons of invisible hearing aids.
- Sit closer to the eardrum
- Require less power
- Visually discreet
- Natural sound quality
- Not recommended for those with moderate to severe hearing loss
- Short battery life
- Designed for those with wider ear canals
To help you decide which hearing aid style will be right for you, talk to your ear, nose, and throat doctor, audiologist, or hearing specialist to get fitted for a hearing aid.
Most of the features you’ll need for your hearing aids come standard with most models.
- Background noise reduction. The degree of this feature will vary based on the style and model of your hearing aid. Many models have adjustable background noise reduction levels, so you can make adjustments as you go throughout your day.
- Low-battery indicator. This simple beep lets you know your battery is running low so you can change it before it runs out.
- Automatic volume control. Also called sound compression and amplification, this feature will boost softer sounds and soften loud sounds to protect your hearing.
- Feedback reduction. Feedback is a buzz, whistle, or other sound that disrupts hearing due to an ill-fitting hearing aid or earwax blocking the microphone. Some models may come with specialized technology to reduce feedback as much as possible.
- Telecoil. Telecoil switch (or T-coil) is available in most new devices these days. This feature helps you hear better on the telephone or in a large venue that utilizes FM or induction loop systems like an auditorium, church, or theater.
- Directional microphone. Most hearing aid models will have at least one directional microphone, though more expensive models will have multiple directional microphones. These microphones make it easier to hear in noisy environments because they detect sound coming from one direction, amplify it, and suppress other background noise. For example, a forward-facing directional microphone will make face-to-face communication easier if you’re in a crowded restaurant or coffee shop.
Depending on your hearing needs and lifestyle, you may want to add some additional features to your hearing aids.
- Water-resistance. No hearing aid will be fully waterproof, but selecting a model with water-resistance will give you peace of mind if you’re caught in a sudden storm.
- Bluetooth. This feature allows you to wirelessly connect your hearing aid to electronic devices like your TV, phone, and music devices.
- Wind noise reduction. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, you may benefit from wind noise reduction. This add-on feature can detect the sound of wind whipping around you and suppress the noise. This would be a great feature to consider if you’re a runner, golfer, gardener, or just enjoy spending time outside.
- Tinnitus suppression. If your hearing loss is accompanied by a high-pitched ringing sound, you may want to consider a hearing aid model with this suppression feature which creates a small amount of white noise to drown out the tinnitus.
Cost and Medicare coverage
Hearing aids are notoriously expensive and not covered by Original Medicare (Part A and Part B). Lack of coverage can prevent people who need hearing aids from obtaining them and improving their health.
Hearing aids can range from $1,000 to $4,000 per device. Some hearing aid models come with more bells and whistles, which can increase costs even more. The amount of technology and add-ons you select for your hearing aid will also alter the price.
The options for paying for a hearing aid vary from using financing, secondary insurance coverage, or taking advantage of charitable organizations that assist with hearing aid costs.
The following eight options may be able to help you cover the cost of your hearing aids:
- Medicare Advantage (Part C). Some Medicare Advantage plans will provide coverage for hearing aids and hearing exams.
- Medical flexible spending accounts. These health expense savings accounts can help with the cost of hearing aids and batteries, and are considered reimbursable.
- Veteran benefits. If you’re a veteran with hearing loss caused by your time in the military or linked to a medical condition treated at a VA hospital, you will probably qualify for hearing aid coverage. You may also get devices through the VA if your hearing loss is severe enough to interfere with you daily activities.
- Federal employee assistance. Federal employees are entitled to coverage through some of their offered insurance plans. Health plans can pay for a basic hearing aid, but any extras or upgrades will have to be covered by the employee.
- Nonprofits. Two of the organizations that help cover the costs of hearing aids are Sertoma and HEAR Now. Each of these programs covers specific costs. Details can be found on their websites.
- Private insurance. If you’re not yet covered by Medicare, some private insurance companies cover hearing aids. In fact, three states (New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Arkansas) require that insurers provide coverage for adults with hearing loss. Each state has its own specific guidelines, so do your research.
- Health Savings Accounts (HSA). The money in your HSA accumulates from year to year, allowing you to slowly put money away for your healthcare needs, including hearing aids and batteries.
- Health Reimbursement Accounts (HRA). An HRA allows an employer to make contributions to an employee’s account and provide reimbursement for certain eligible expenses. You will need to talk to your employer to find out who will fund an account like this. They will decide not only who funds it, but also whether or not hearing aids and batteries are covered. Check with your company’s benefits department beforehand.
- Retailers. If you can’t get coverage for the hearing aids you need, you may be able to find less expensive models through retailer like Costco, Amazon, or Walmart. However, you will still need to be fitted for a hearing aid by your doctor before you can place an order.
If you think you need hearing aids, talk to your ENT, audiologist, or hearing specialist to test your hearing, get fitted, and discuss your options.