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.