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Coming Soon: Over-the-Counter Hearing Aids

There was a lot of movement in Washington, D.C. last week about making certain hearing aids more available and more affordable. First, some facts. According to statistics published recently by the White House:

30 million Americans suffer from hearing loss

The average cost of a hearing aid is $2,300 – twice that for two ears

Only 20 percent of Americans who would benefit from hearing aids have them, mostly due to the price

The reason for the White House interest in hearing aids was this announcement last week from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which on 7 December

”...issued a guidance document explaining that it does not intend to enforce the requirement that individuals 18 and up receive a medical evaluation or sign a waiver prior to purchasing most hearing aids [and]

“...also announcing its commitment to consider creating a category of over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids that could deliver new, innovative and lower-cost products to millions of consumers.”

In addition, last week Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) introduced the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2016 [pdf] in Congress. The bipartisan legislation would make certain types of hearing aids available over the counter.

A press release posted on Senator Warren's website notes that the Act would

”...allow hearing aids that are intended to be used by adults to compensate for mild to moderate hearing impairment to be sold over the counter, and would eliminate the requirement that people get a medical evaluation or sign a waiver in order to acquire these hearing aids...

“The bill is supported by the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the Consumer Technology Association, Bose, and the Gerontological Society of America.”

There are additional consumer-friendly provisions in the Warren/Grassley bill not included in the FDA changes.

All this is, essentially, a done deal. Before too long, under the conditions laid out above, we will be able to buy hearing aids at a reasonable price.

As I explained a couple of months ago in a post on hearing loss and Medicare – which does not cover hearing aids - this news is important to me personally. It has been decades since I could easily hear a conversation in a noisy restaurant and beginning earlier this year, the audio on certain television shows sounds like gobbledegook to me.

Well, listen to this: about three weeks ago, during a visit to the doctor, the assistant who recorded my vitals said that the wax (also known as cerumen) in my ears was impacted but they could fix that.

And wow. At the risk of indulging in too much information, I would not have believed before that the amount of wax removed could even fit into an ear. But more, I could instantly hear better.

It's not that it was hard to hear in most circumstances before but that everything was instantly more crisp. And all that gobbledegook from the teevee? Except for one show I watch fairly regularly, Elementary, I can hear the audio clearly now.

(This revelation is specific to me. It is not necessarily an answer for anyone else with mild hearing loss.)

What I have noticed since then is that although I can hear clearly, I need to work harder, pay closer attention than I remember doing for most of my life when hearing was automatic and that is why I am so happy to have the news about over-the-counter hearing aids before too long because there is no way I could afford an average price of $6400.

Of course, there are types of hearing loss that require treatment by an otolaryngologist or an audiologist and sometimes involve surgical treatment and/or aids that are more complex that what will be available over the counter.

But for many of the 80 percent who have untreated hearing loss because they can't afford the aids, this new over-the-counter remedy will be a boon. And it is more than just improved hearing: untreated hearing loss leads to depression, loneliness and isolation which can lead to further health problems.

Over-the-counter reading glasses have been available without a prescription for decades and are so inexpensive that most people can afford to have several pair. There is no reason that a remedy for simple, mild hearing loss should not be available in the same manner.

In the coming months and years, we are going to need to work our fingers to the bone to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. This change is one simple but important thing will improve the lives of millions who cannot now afford hearing aids and millions more in the future too.

Comments

Glad that wax removal helped you. I also lack clear hearing but wax is not my problem. Hearing aids indeed are very expensive, I am fortunate to have some coverage from my health insurance but it mandated a visit to an ENT doctor.

That was an unexpected extra expense. He looked into my ears, nose and throat with a light and walked out about two minutes later after shaking hands and saying all was okay. The bill was $165.

I don't know how the different hearing aid companies operate. I dealt with Beltone it provides regular free checkups and free hearing aid batteries for the life of the hearing aids.

Your article reminded me of a doctor I had years ago who would clean the wax out of my ears with a Waterpik - - worked great. I now use wax removal drops once a month or so, and it always seems to help.

This all sounds good however my concern is the quality of the hearing aid.

Funny you should mention having difficulty understanding dialogue on Elementary. I have the same issue with the show. I have difficulty hearing certain tones especially when men speak.


Good news on over-the-counter progress. I've needed wax removal several times in the past. My beautiful wife finally advised me to direct hot water into each ear for several minutes every time I showered. Haven't had another buildup since (more than a year).

We also watch "Elementary" and have problems getting all the dialogue. My hearing is normal, beautiful wife has aids to resolve minor problems. So, apparently most of the difficulty is with the program production or sound transmission.

I don't think anyone can understand Sherlock on Elementary -- he speaks rapidly and softly & I understand everyone else on the show just fine. On the other hand, last week I wondered why my husband in the next room was calling to me about the location of the "Christmas Elf". Actually, he wanted the Citrucel.

This is wonderful news, to me personally and hopefully millions of others. I liken it to having to pay for a veterinary check up before I was able to buy a flea prevention product for my dog. Really? My dog needs a whole check up for a flea prevention? I need to pay for an audiology check up to know what % my hearing is impaired. Great, maybe now we can just fix it!

I also agree about Elementary - I routinely turn on the "closed captions" for that show only. And my hearing loss is minimal. Thanks for raising this important issue of concern to many.

At long, long last I can give a cheer for my Senator Grassley. What an interesting partnership -- Mr. G and Eliz. Warren. Yin and Yang.

At nearly 81, I have lately noticed difficulty hearing in groups, so I expect to need a hearing aide in the near future. My hubby pays mega-bucks for his high tech "ears". I hope the gadgets that will be offered more cheaply will be almost as good and invisible. I noticed that Bose was among the sponsors. Hmmm.

Thanks for spreading the good news, Ronni.

A tip about TV dialogue: use the captioning feature. I have normal hearing according to the tests, but I frequently have trouble with TV dialogue because of rapid and often mumbled speech. I also like watching British TV and the accents are difficult. With captioning, I know what people are saying and after a while, don't even notice the print on the screen.

I'm sure many products will pop-up on the market when this legislation is passed, and like Emily - my concern is about the quality. You really don't know until you've worn them awhile how useful they will be. A lot of money can be spent on trial and error.

In regard to Joyce's mention of the Water Pik...it would not be a good idea for someone to try it on their own. The ear is delicate and not to be tampered with.

Having had a progressive hearing loss that started 50 years ago, I know how isolating it can be. This is wonderful news for those with mild hearing loss. Every elder I know does have mild hearing loss when their body starts showing age. Some don't even realize it as it comes on gradually. Over-the-counter aids will be a real boon for them.

Vision, hearing and dental work should have been included in Medicare long ago. I wonder if it ever will be now.

My insurance has covered hearing exams but not hearing aids. So far my hearing loss is insignificant. Several of my friends have gotten hearing aids the past few years and have needed several adjustments and one needed a special mold for her ear as she had a very narrow ear canal. Most of them obtained their hearing aids at Costco at around $2000 the one who went to another paid $4000 for the same hearing aid Costco sells. Most of them don't wear their hearing aids regularly. I'm not sure that over the counter hearing aids would suit the needs of people who need several adjustment and educating about how to use them.

Those cheap(er) hearing aids advertised in the AARP Newsletter and other magazines work well enough for me. I have the ordinary kind of hearing loss, which is mostly in the speech range.
If there were hearing aids available that would make music sound good to me again, I would really welcome that. I noticed a while ago that everything sounded out of tune without hearing aids or harsh with them, and that I did not really enjoy listening to music any more.

I got my hearing aids at Costco for $2,799.98. I paid a bit more because my canals are also very small, and Phonak was the only brand that fit comfortably. The exam was free whether I bought the aids or not. I only wear them when I go out because I have a mild hearing loss and the difference is very subtle. It has taken the frustration out of my conversations, and I don't have to ask, "what," nearly as often.

I don't think I have any hearing loss yet (age 73), but like cataracts, it can come on so gradually that you might not notice it. A lot of TVs have settings that emphasize voices over other sounds, or provide a more theatrical sound, etc. Or boosting the treble over the bass might help. Something to look for in addition to captions. OTC hearing aids sound like a good idea (oops, no pun intended) as long as people can't stand there trying them on. Ick! Get a doctor's recommendation and then buy a sealed product.

At nearly 80, I've begun to notice some difficulty not so much with hearing but with understanding speech--and the former isn't a lot of use without the latter in many situations. So, I'm happy to find that I might actually be able to afford hearing assistance in the not-too-distant future. NO way can I afford "medical grade" aids. My husband paid well over $2700 for a single aid several years ago and, although he could probably benefit from a 2nd, the price gives us pause now that we're both retired.

How can it be that there is essentially no insurance coverage for such basic and essential devices? Hearing loss will affect nearly everyone to some degree if they live long enough.

I am so glad to read this. I knew I had some hearing loss but thought I was losing my mind because TV has become so hard for me. I want to 'fine tune' it. lol I will indeed make an appt. with my hearing doc. Up til now there wasn't any hearing aid for my very mild loss that isn't mild now. :-)

Thank you to those who mentioned closed captioning. I had no idea you could add them to "regular" TV (I already do it with streaming). I went on line to see how to re-program the system settings and--voila!--closed captions. I immediately racked up video-on-demand episode of Elementary -- what a difference. It added immensely to my enjoyment of the program. Thank you, TGB friends!

Just weighing in on Elementary!! I have no hearing loss that I know of and no problems with any other arenas of my life or any other TV programs, however, Elementary is very hard to understand. Sounds like it is the show's problem!!! Thanks!!

I bought quite hi-tech hearing aids at Costco for $1300.00. Still expensive-thank goodness I have a daughter with a credit card who covered it for me and I paid her back at $100.00 a month.
I think it's important for seniors to have their hearing checked prior to getting hearing aids..most independent hearing aid companies will do it for free-and they will check for ear wax at the same time.

Because I shopped around, I got 3 different hearing aid assessments. Miracle Ear-the most expensive also declared I had the most urgent need for hearing aids. They cost over $8000.00 for a pair. A local hearing aid sales store gave me basically the same exam but had a slightly different interpretation of the results..significant hearing loss in my right ear, low to medium loss in the left. This doctor also felt I should see an ENT specialist because of the degree and type of loss. Costco again gave me the same hearing test with similar results. So I did go to the ENT, who was covered by my insurance but for a $30.00 co-pay. I had a much more comprehensive test. I took the results of the first 3 tests to the ENT and she laughed at the Miracle Ear assessment. She indicated they are known as a high pressure sales store who push their overly expensive hearing aids. She recommended Costco for the price. I would have purchased from the independent local doctor but he wasn't willing to come even close to Costco. He said he couldn't make any money if he had to match them. Costco and had the type and size of aids I knew I would wear..no more big old fashioned hearing aids that look like pink slugs perched behind our ear. My aids are less than an inch long and half an inch wide, are bright red and are blu-tooth enabled so I can listen to music in the car and also keep tabs on my grand daughter in the back seat. I control the aids with an app on my smart phone. I usually set my iPhone playing music or an audio book in my left ear and leave my right ear free to pick up normal conversations..I love this feature.

I had a real need for specific frequency hearing aids..the same thing Miracle Ear old me. The OTC aids now available increase the volume of every frequency equally..new hearing aids, such as the ones from Costco can be 'tuned' to boost specific frequencies where needed. This needs to be tested for and done by someone who knows what they are doing.

I thing we need to be cautious about buying things like hearing aids thru magazine ads or at Wal-Mart. If certain frequencies are too low for individuals that these hearing aids won't be of any help..you'll just be making everything louder without addressing specific potential issues.

Be well and happy Festivus (for the rest of us) everyone
Elle

I hope one of the effects of the Warren-Grassley (very strange bedfellows) legislation is that the ridiculous overpricing of hearing aids comes to a halt. It's an industry full of charlatans and has thrived on bilking the elderly.

Elementary has required me to use closed-captioning from inception. I think it's a combination of being heavy with fast-paced dialog, Jonny Lee Miller's soft voice and a general British tendency toward mumbling. I stream many Brit shows and always use closed-captioning.

As someone who is familiar with hearing aids even though I don't wear them I think there are a couple of things to consider. Hearing aids amplify sound and if they're not set specifically to match your hearing loss you'll find that they won't help you follow a conversation in a noisy environment. The background noise will also be amplified. The second thing is the "pink slugs behind the ear" are relatively simple to check and change batteries which don't go flat at regular time periods. I hate seeing frustrated hearing aid wearers trying to understand what someone is saying when I know the likely cause is simply flat batteries. In-the-ear aids might be more fashionable but if I ever need a hearing aid I'll be going for "pink slugs".

I lost all the hearing in my left ear a few years ago due to a conflict in medications I was taking. Fortunately, the other ear is okay.
After extensive testing, I was told by an audiologist that a hearing aid would definitely help my condition. That was the good news.
The bad news was, in her words, "You're not deaf enough to qualify for a free (Medicaid) hearing aid."
Evidently, as long as I have at least 50% of my hearing, I am not considered as being hard of hearing.
If indeed, I were able to go into a store and try on a few reasonably priced hearing aids, I would consider it a god-send. I would love to be able to hear in stereo again.

I noticed a few years ago that when paying cash for something I seldom got it right...testing showed hearing loss in certain ranges. I, too, purchased the Costco hearing aids.

The woman who adjusted them after almost a year told me that I needed to wear them at least 6 hours a day as some sounds are lost forever if not heard and processed - ? So I do put them on especially when watching TV as my husband complains when I have the "sound too loud" - and he wears a headset for his much more severe hearing loss.

Dad's ear wax removed resulted in immediate hearing improvement. So much so that he found the "new" world painfully loud.

+1 to to TV's closed captions.

Ronni - this is a wonderful source of information for seniors. I love the input of so many experienced people.

Over the counter hearing aids have been available in the UK for some years. Unless you have a low-level of loss, they will not really help. Modern hearing aids need to be programmed specifically for the hearing of each individual user. I accept the fact that they are expensive but you do need the expertise or they will not help. My wife's recently cost us $6000 including the examination and programming. She gets hers replaced very 4 years or so as technology moves on very quickly. This will be her 4th pair over the past 12 years and they are so much better than anything she has had before due to improvements in technology and programming capability. Even with her hearing aids, she wears wireless headphones around the house to listen to TV and music and these may help those who simply have trouble with the Tv etc.

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