En español | Listen to this: Nearly 1 in 4 people ages 65 to 74 and 1 in 2 over age 75 have disabling hearing loss. Yet only 16 percent of those under 69 who could benefit from hearing aids use them — and fewer than 1 in 3 over 70. Why? Cost can be a big reason. Hearing aids tend to be pricey and are often not covered by health insurance plans. As a result, many people choose to get by without the devices.
Hearing loss is not only uncomfortable — and sometimes dangerous — but can also seriously affect your health in other ways. To stay safe and well, try these eight tips to help you manage your hearing loss without paying top dollar.
1. Shop around
With a wide variety of devices, services and prices available, you need to know the landscape before buying. Technology and services (like testing, education, fitting and follow-up exams) are the main drivers of cost, according to Tom Powers, expert audiology consultant to the Hearing Industries Association (HIA). Surveys have found that prices per device, based on both technology and services, range from $1,604 for an entry-level hearing aid to $2,063 for a mid-level one to $2,651 for a top-level option, he says.
Features that can drive up price include size (is it visible?), rechargeability (many hearing aids no longer rely on batteries but are charged like cellphones), better directional microphones, more channels for noise reduction and feedback suppression, and wireless or Bluetooth connectivity. On the low end is the big-box retailer Costco, which buys in bulk and currently sells a pair of hearing aids for $1,400. But some people may need more comprehensive testing, follow-up care and specialty products than Costco offers.
2. Know what options are included in the price
Four key things to ask when considering a hearing aid provider:
a. Is there a payment, subscription or leasing plan that spreads out the financial burden over time? The Whisper.ai, for example, uses a subscription model, so users pay $139 a month and benefit from periodic software upgrades, says Kim Cavitt, a Chicago audiologist.
b. What are the bundling options? On average, the hearing aid itself is only one-third of the total cost, says HIA President Kate Carr. Some practitioners “bundle” the diagnosis, the actual hearing aid and follow-up exams. But make sure you need all three before paying for them. If you need just the device — say, you've already had an audiogram and don't require the follow-up visits — you can save by going with an unbundled model.
c. What is the warranty? Most hearing aids come with one. Ask the length of the warranty, whether it covers maintenance and repairs and whether the provider gives loaner aids during repair periods.
d. Is there a transparent return-and-refund policy? Most states require a minimum 30-day trial period for hearing aids.
3. Look into buying online or direct-to-consumer hearing aids
This is often a cheaper option and can work well for those who are unable to see a hearing aid provider because, say, they live in a rural area or are disabled, Cavitt says. “The big players in the direct-to-consumer space are Lexie, Eargo and Lively.... Some have online hearing-test capabilities ... but most have telehealth capacities,” so you are talking with someone who is guiding you through the process, she adds. The downside? “Many [online or direct-to-consumer providers] do not offer fitting services that tailor the setting of the devices to your specific hearing loss,” Powers says. “This may affect how well you may be able to hear in noisy background situations."
You may also have also heard about new over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but they are not out in drugstores yet. The agency released proposed guidelines for this new category of OTC hearing aids, which are likely to be less expensive than current models, in October. Experts expect the rule to be finalized next year, with OTC hearing aids hitting shelves thereafter. In the meantime, several state attorneys general have issued warnings about OTC devices that falsely claim to be “FDA-approved.” They are not.
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4. If you are 65 or older, look for Medicare supplemental plan coverage
Basic Medicare does not pay for hearing aids (though with hearing loss increasingly linked to depression, isolation, falls and dementia, some Congress members are pushing for that to change). But about 40 percent of Medicare enrollees have a Medicare Advantage plan, which can range from $10 to $150 per month and up, and “the vast majority” of those plans do cover hearing aids, Carr says.
5. If you're eligible for Medicaid, check out your state coverage
Medicaid terms are decided state by state, but many do offer Medicaid coverage for hearing aids. Check with your state agency that handles Medicaid guidelines.
6. Ask your hearing specialist about local sources of aid
The Lions Club collects and distributes used, repurposed hearing aids. You can also find help through your Area Agency on Aging or Kiwanis Club.
7. Investigate national charitable foundations
The Hearing Aid Project, Foundation for Sight and Sound, Starkey Hearing Foundation and Miracle-Ear Foundation help people who cannot afford hearing aids. Email the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (email@example.com), part of the National Institutes of Health, for other sources.
8. If you're a veteran, check your coverage
One in 3 service members return from deployment with measurable hearing loss. You must enroll in the VA Health Benefits program to qualify for hearing aids, which are steeply discounted. To apply, visit your local VA office, go online or call 877-222-VETS (8387).
Editor's note: This article was originally published on July 21, 2021. It has been updated to reflect new information regarding OTC hearing aids.