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En español | Only 30 percent of people over age 70 who need a hearing aid use one, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders — and cost is one of the major barriers. The price of one hearing aid can range from $1,500 to a few thousand dollars, according to the Mayo Clinic. Accessories and the fees charged by hearing care professionals may be extra. Here are eight smart steps you can take to pay less out of pocket.
Get the best hearing aid for you
Today's hearing aids can do everything from stream sound from your TV to monitor your heart rate and physical activity to translate foreign languages. “But advanced technology comes with a cost,” says Kate Carr, president of the Hearing Industries Association. “If you have more features, it's going to drive up the cost.” An exam administered by a hearing care professional can determine what level of hearing loss you have and what features you need. “You might need a hearing aid only for restaurants, or you might not need streaming,” she says. “The professional can help you understand where you're having difficulty and what's important to you in terms of your lifestyle."
Add to your insurance
“Medicare does not cover hearing aids, but some of the supplemental Medicare packages are starting to,” says Eryn Staats, audiology manager at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Many Medicare Advantage plans include coverage for hearing aids. “This can help you get a better hearing aid for less,” says Tom Wiffler, CEO of UnitedHealthcare Specialty Benefits. Some private insurers also offer discounts on hearing aids if they're purchased through certain suppliers. Check with your insurance to find out.
Buy from trusted sources
Hearing aids are available through audiologists’ and ENT physicians’ offices, big-box stores like Costco, and online merchants that sell direct to the consumer. Prices vary depending on the hearing aid and the seller. Experts stress that while it's possible to get good hearing aids in different environments, it's also important to work with a trusted hearing professional so you don't wind up buying a device that doesn't meet your needs — which would be a waste of money rather than a savings. “Don't buy off TV or the internet,” says Laurel Christensen, chief audiology officer at GN Hearing, a hearing aid manufacturer. “This is a health issue, and you do need to see a professional.”
Ask about unbundling
In many cases, Carr says, hearing aids are sold as a bundled package that includes everything from the hearing test through the purchase and fitting and adjustments afterward. “It's like a fixed-price menu in a restaurant,” she says. “But maybe you want only the appetizer and entrée.” If you don't want everything, ask about separating out some of the line-item charges. “Pick and choose,” she says. “Evaluate what you're buying, and if you don't need all those services it could reduce your price."
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Take advantage of benefits for veterans
“Military veterans have access to hearing health services through the VA,” says Carr. “They get them for free in recognition for their service.” And this is important, considering that hearing loss is the most common service-related medical problem for veterans. You need to have a test to determine your hearing loss and then be approved as eligible for hearing aids. You can start the process at a VA hospital or health center.
Use your HSA
Many employers offer health savings accounts or flexible spending arrangements, through which you can set aside pretax dollars for health costs not covered by insurance. Hearing aids are considered a qualified medical expense.
Find out whether a cochlear implant could help
Only 7 percent of adults who would benefit from a cochlear implant — a device that's surgically implanted to help with moderate to severe hearing loss — get one, says neurotologist Aaron Moberly, a clinical assistant professor at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “There's a big problem with awareness,” he says. For one thing, contrary to what many people think, you don't have to be profoundly deaf in both ears to use one. “Some people might actually perform better with an implant than a hearing aid but may not realize it could be a good step for them,” Moberly says. And since most insurance plans, including Medicare, cover cochlear implants, it may be worth seeing an audiologist who is specially trained in cochlear implants to find out.
Consider an over-the-counter hearing device starting in 2020
But use caution. Drugstores currently sell what's known as personal sound amplification products (PSAPs), which range in price from $10 to $500 and can be purchased without a prescription or a hearing evaluation. It's important to note that these are not hearing aids and, like reading glasses bought in a drugstore, are not tailored to a person's specific hearing loss. In fact, they're not intended to be used for hearing loss and can't be marketed that way. Rather, their purpose is hearing enhancement.
These devices are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But in August 2020, when the FDA is required to hand down guidelines for over-the-counter hearing aids, what's available in drugstores will begin to change. It eventually will be possible to purchase a hearing aid that meets government standards at a much lower cost. In the meantime, experts are reserving judgment. “Until the FDA makes its announcement, we don't know what the guidelines are. And since the products aren't out yet, we don't know what the quality will be,” says Staats. “It's to be determined.”
She and other experts will most likely continue to recommend seeing a hearing care professional for an evaluation rather than buying an OTC hearing aid. But there could be good news on that front as well. “Given that there will be a lot of competition from people selling over the counter for a mild degree of hearing loss, that will drive down the cost of hearing aids in general,” says Moberly. “That in itself is a big change for the field.”