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New Report Pushes for Cheaper, Easier Hearing Aids

Changes could help make devices more affordable

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New report could revolutionize the way consumers receive and pay for hearing health care

Last week the prestigious National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine issued a report with a series of recommendations that, if adopted, could revolutionize the way consumers receive and pay for hearing health care in the United States.

About 30 million Americans have hearing loss, but 67 to 86 percent of those who could benefit from hearing aids do not use them. The report called hearing loss "a significant public-health concern."

The June 2 report by the Committee on Accessible and Affordable Hearing Health Care for Adults represented input from experts in hearing research, public health, geriatrics and audiology, as well as from industry and consumer groups.

Consumers hope the recommendations will ultimately result in relief from the high cost of hearing aids, little insurance coverage and the limited availability of hearing professionals.

The committee listed 12 recommendations, but here are the four I consider most important.

  • Make buying a hearing aid easier by removing the Food and Drug Administration's regulation requiring a medical evaluation or a waiver before a hearing aid can be purchased.

    It's not difficult for consumers to waive the medical evaluation, but many people feel they are required to see a doctor before buying a hearing aid. This is a stumbling block for many. As the report pointed out, the only time a medical visit is essential is if you display "red flag" conditions, including sudden or rapidly progressing hearing loss within the previous 90 days, acute or chronic dizziness, pain or discomfort in the ear, or a visible ear deformity.

  • Promote hearing screening in wellness and medical visits.

    Most primary care doctors do not conduct even a cursory screening for hearing loss, even among the elderly. Failure to recognize hearing loss can be a threat to quality health care. A patient may not hear the doctor clearly, for instance.

  • Make lower-cost, over-the-counter hearing devices more widely available by implementing a new FDA category for them.

    This refers to personal sound amplification products, or PSAPs, and other less costly over-the-counter hearing devices.

  • Improve the compatibility of hearing technologies with other communications systems.

    This refers not only to compatibility of hearing aids with other hearing assistive devices and technologies, but also to developing "open platform" hearing aid programming. This would allow health care professionals — or, eventually, the device owner — to be able to program the settings on any device from any manufacturer, which is currently not the case.

In many ways, the report echoes the highly critical findings of a White House advisory group's report last October. The group, as reported in the New York Times , said that industry concentration and overregulation meant that hearing aids had "not experienced the dramatic reductions in price and increases in features that have been routinely seen across consumer electronics."

"When compared in complexity to today's smartphones costing a few hundred dollars each," the report said, "even premium-model hearing aids are simple devices but can cost several thousand dollars."

The response to the White House report, as well as to these new recommendations, has varied widely among industry, consumer and health care groups — "hailed by some groups and denounced by others," noted audiologist Barbara Weinstein, writing on the website Hearing Health & Technology Matters.

But she urged all parties to work toward common goals. "It is a win-win for all stakeholders to close the gap between the proportion of persons with untreated age-related hearing loss and the proportion of those who enjoy a measurably high quality of life as the result of hearing health care interventions purchased through audiologists.

"We are part of the problem and part of the solution. Let's change that balance and remain essential," she said.

You can read a summary of the report here. The full report — "Hearing Health Care for Adults: Priorities for Improving Access and Affordability" — is available from the National Academies Press online or by calling 202-334-3313 or 800-624-6242.

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