Help millions by allowing over-the-counter hearing aids

By Barbara Kelley

(CNN) -- This month, the Senate has an opportunity to dramatically improve the lives of millions of Americans who suffer from mild and moderate hearing loss.

Forty eight million Americans who suffer from hearing loss currently face a stark choice: purchase a hearing aid in a market where the cost of a single device averages more than $2,300 (and most people require two) or endure the health risks and social isolation caused by hearing loss.

Far too many are forced to make the latter choice -- Medicare and most private insurance plans do not cover the cost of these critical devices; and most people with hearing loss need two, one for each ear. One study indicates that only 14% of those who could benefit from a hearing aid actually use one.

My organization, the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), receives hundreds of letters and calls each month from Americans desperate for help but unable to afford the high cost of hearing aids.

From Nevada, Mary wrote of her husband's struggle and the impact it has on their lives: "Just wondering if you can help my husband, Mike. He's 75 and very hard of hearing and using his old uncle's hearing aids and now they have to be taped to hold them together, they are falling apart all the time.

"We cannot afford new ones as we are on Social Security and on a very tight budget. Do you know of a way he can get hearing aids, otherwise, he can't hear me."

"I've read the (President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology) report and the study by the National Academies, and everyone says that hearing aids should be affordable and offered over the counter but when will that happen?" wrote Francis from Florida, "I am 88 and I know I need a hearing aid. I have been given all kinds of price quotes, up to $7,500!"

Roy from Nebraska outlined his monthly income and expenses and declared that there is simply "(n)othing left for hearing aids!"

These stories are heartbreaking -- Americans just want to hear ... but cannot afford these life-changing devices.

For Francis and Roy and 48 million other Americans, untreated hearing loss is a major health concern that leads to increase risk of falls, isolation, anxiety, depression. Research demonstrates a clear link between untreated hearing loss and cognitive decline. Yet 85% of people who could benefit from hearing aids are not using one.

Two years ago, PCAST released a report identifying several steps the government could take to "decrease the cost of hearing aids, spur technology innovation, and increase consumer choice," most notably recommending that hearing aids designed to address mild to moderate hearing loss be made available over the counter (OTC). In 2016, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine made a similar recommendation, urging the creation of an over-the-counter category for hearing devices.

Last month the House of Representatives passed legislation as part of the FDA User Fee Reauthorization Act to implement these expert recommendations and allow the sale of OTC hearing aids. The Senate now has an opportunity to do the same, which will dramatically impact consumers by expanding access to innovative, lower-cost hearing technology.

We know price is not the only factor delaying adoption of life-changing hearing technology; social stigma and access to care are also factors. But if good and safe technology is offered at affordable prices over the counter, people who might not venture into the clinic of an audiologist or hearing instrument specialist can take that critical first step to a better life with an OTC hearing aid.

PCAST noted that allowing the sale of hearing aids over the counter will likely "disrupt the current business practices of hearing aid manufacturers and dispensers." So it is unsurprising that the same manufacturers profiting from the sale of $2,000 hearing aids are lobbying against the bill to preserve the status quo. However, organizations like the Consumer Technology Association, which HLAA has received minor sponsorships from in the past, are lobbying for the bill in hopes that it will provide more affordable choices for consumers suffering from hearing loss.

Every day, HLAA interacts with Americans who just want to hear well enough to stay on the job, participate in their community, or enjoy their retirement years. It would be wonderful if we could tell them they have affordable choices so they can live well with hearing loss.


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