Recently the “The Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017” was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts), Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Maggie Hassan (New Hampshire) and Johnny Isakson (Georgia) with companion legislation introduced in the House by Reps. Joe Kennedy III (Massachusetts) and Marsha Blackburn (Tennessee). The purpose of this bill is to assist seniors with low-to-moderate hearing loss, access hearing aids by making them available over the counter. If seniors are allowed to get hearing aids over the counter, it would eliminate the onerous requirement that people get a medical examination or sign a waiver—bypassing the examination prior to receiving a hearing aid. In addition, the law would instruct the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to write regulations to ensure the hearing aid’s safety and proper labeling.
This legislation is badly needed because Medicare often does not cover the cost of hearing aids, and the third most widespread chronic health condition confronting seniors is hearing loss. This Medicare coverage hole has caused an unacceptable 70 percent of Americans with a hearing loss between the ages of 65 and 84, to forgo the benefits of these devices because they are too cost prohibitive. With the average cost of a hearing aid at $2,400, paying for this device out of pocket for older Americans, especially low-income seniors, is not a viable option on their limited budgets.
According to Consumer Reports, the average retail markup for hearing aids is 117 percent because the market is controlled by only a select group of companies. Proponents of the bill argue that this legislation would create more competition for hearings aids and therefore decrease the cost. Opponents of the bill are skeptical this would lead to additional people purchasing hearing aids, and believe this legislation could cause people to self-diagnose hearing loss, and consequently not seek the guidance of medical professionals. However, according to Sen. Hassan, “Allowing certain hearing aids to be sold over the counter, just like reading glasses are, is a common-sense step that bring real cost savings to older Americans.” In addition, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine states, “No evidence that the required medical evaluation or waiver of that evaluation provides any clinically meaningful benefit” and advocates “removing this regulation to serve consumers’ best interests.”
Increasing access to hearing aids will also improve seniors’ mental health. According to Dr. Frank Lin (assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University and an otologist and epidemiologist who focuses in the impact of hearing loss on older adults), hearing loss is a consequential part of aging. For example, he conducted studies that demonstrated hearing loss caused seniors to lose cognitive abilities and increased their chances of getting dementia. In addition, far too many seniors over time are losing one of their basic senses, the simple ability to hear. Can you imagine having a difficult time listening to music, watching TV or conducting a basic conversation? Until Congress expands Medicare to cover all costs associated with hearing aids, “The Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017” could provide seniors with more financial security by driving down the cost of hearing aids, and improving their quality of life.
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