The myth of OTC hearing aids
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Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenOvernight Finance: Lawmakers grill Equifax chief over hack | Wells Fargo CEO defends bank's progress | Trump jokes Puerto Rico threw budget 'out of whack' | Mortgage tax fight tests industry clout Michelle Obama is exactly who the Democrats need to win big in 2020 Wells Fargo chief defends bank's progress in tense Senate hearing MORE (D-Mass.) and the consumer technology lobby are making a big push in support of the Over-the-Counter (OTC) Hearing Aid Act of 2017. Their message is very consumer-focused: This bill will improve consumer access to hearing aids by making them available over the counter for the first time.

Unfortunately, it’s a message that is extremely misleading. 

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As a nonprofit educational and research institute, our mission is to analyze policy issues and educate the public about the impact new laws and regulations will have on consumers. We were founded on the belief that consumers’ interests are not adequately represented in Washington, and that “consumer advocacy” has been co-opted by a variety of special interests that claim to be working on behalf of ordinary Americans. The OTC hearing aid bill moving slowly through Congress is a perfect example of politicians and lobbyists misrepresenting their intentions to consumers.

Here's what the OTC bill does: It uses the power of government to re-brand existing devices that are already sold over the counter. That’s it. There’s no improved access to anything; the devices covered by this bill are already available at Wal-Mart. The Warren bill will simply empower the FDA to regulate them as medical devices, allowing some companies to use government regulation to their financial advantage. 

The devices in question are known as personal sound amplification products (PSAPs). These devices are available over the counter for recreational use, such as birdwatching or eavesdropping. They aren’t classified as medical devices because they are simple products designed to amplify sound, not address a medical condition. Hearing aids, on the other hand, are complex and highly tailored to a patient’s need. This is necessary because of the complexity of hearing loss – its causes, its severity and type, and the possibility of discovery and diagnosis of other related illnesses doctors find during the diagnostic phase of treatment.

PSAPs are fine for their intended purpose. But if an individual has hearing loss, PSAPs probably aren’t going to solve their problem, and in fact could exacerbate it. During a recent congressional hearing, Rep. David McKinleyDavid McKinleyLawmakers try again on miners’ pension bill There’s a way to protect consumers and keep good call center jobs in the U.S. The myth of OTC hearing aids MORE (R-W.Va.), who has hearing loss, shared his personal story, in which he significantly damaged his own hearing by self-treating with an amplification device rather than consulting with a medical professional.

That said, if you prize consumer freedom above all else, you are perfectly free to buy a PSAP and use it to treat your own hearing loss. Most doctors wouldn’t recommend this, but it’s permissible. There is no consumer access problem when it comes to PSAPs. 

The purpose of this legislation is marketing. Companies like Bose, headquartered in Sen. Warren’s home state, want to manufacture PSAPs and market them as hearing aids. They need FDA regulations to do that, so they’re investing a lot of money in lobbying Congress to pass this bill. There’s no other explanation for legislation that “expands consumer access” to something consumers already have access to. This is what consumer advocates mean when we speak of “crony capitalism.”

In my view, the best option for patients and consumers is to encourage them to consult a doctor for a diagnosis of their unique hearing loss situation. There’s nothing wrong with allowing PSAPs to be sold over the counter, as long as it’s clear that they’re different from traditional hearing aids. Buying a PSAP on your own, jamming it into your ear and turning up the volume is an overly simplistic way to treat hearing loss, and could be very dangerous.

But what’s most important for consumers is not to get duped by corporate talking points. The OTC Hearing Aid Act will not improve patient access to new technology. It will insulate a favored industry by using the power of government to create a new marketing category. That’s not the kind of leadership consumers are looking for from Congress.

Steve Pociask is president of the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit educational and research organization.  For more information about the Institute, visit www.TheAmericanConsumer.Org or follow us on Twitter @ConsumerPal.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.