Hearing should be accessible, affordable and safe — for everyone
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If your vision isn’t what it used to be, basic reading glasses are cheap and easy to find from any number of retailers in this country. But what if you’re one of the 30 million Americans over 60 who experience hearing loss? A comparably accessible and affordable solution is harder to come by. As a result, only about 16 percent of people with this condition actually use hearing aids. But there’s something we can do about it, and better hearing will be just one of the rewards.

Hearing loss is the third most prevalent chronic health condition facing older people. Yet hearing aids aren’t covered by Medicare. Paying out-of-pocket for the devices — at an average cost of more than $2,300 per hearing aid — is too expensive for many people. And hearing aids are typically sold bundled with fees charged for evaluation, follow-up, and adjustments to the device, even though many consumers never use these services.

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Further, an FDA regulation requires adults to have a medical evaluation or sign an evaluation waiver to purchase a hearing aid, although the agency isn’t currently enforcing certain conditions after the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently concluded the requirement provides no “clinically meaningful benefit.”

 

There’s a bipartisan bill (the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017) moving through both houses of Congress that would help address some of these issues, and it’s based on recommendations from both the National Academies and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. The Gerontological Society of America supports this bill, too, because it addresses a critical and unmet need regarding the health of older people. The measure would encourage the development of hearing devices that would be accessible and affordable for millions of Americans affected by mild to moderate hearing impairment.

Specifically, this legislation would enable hearing aids to be sold over the counter, which would expand consumer choice, open the market to innovative hearing technologies, and drive down prices so that millions more Americans could access affordable hearing aids. Further, it would require the FDA to write regulations ensuring that this new category of OTC hearing aids meets the same high standards for safety, consumer labeling, and manufacturing protections as all medical devices, providing consumers with the option of an FDA-regulated device at lower cost.

Research shows that hearing loss has a wider range of consequences than people might expect. For example, these studies demonstrate that people with hearing loss are at a greater risk of developing dementia, falling, becoming hospitalized, and having greater healthcare costs. Going without hearing aids can be tragic in terms of decreased quality of life, increased isolation, and inability to interact effectively with healthcare professionals, family, friends, and others during daily activities.  

People of all ages deserve the best quality of hearing available to them. For those who need assistive devices for their mild to moderate hearing loss, let’s use this opportunity to remove as many barriers as possible — especially when it means keeping people healthier, more engaged, and closer to their loved ones.

 

James Appleby, BSPharm, MPH, is the executive director and CEO of The Gerontological Society of America, the nation's oldest and largest interdisciplinary organization devoted to research, education, and practice in the field of aging.


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