The High Cost of Hearing Aids, The Question of Priorities
by Cheryl Heppner
Editor: The issue of hearing aid cost and how to deal with it seems
to be heating up a bit. We've published a couple of related stories in
the past month or so. Here's another view from Cheryl Heppner of NVRC.
This article originally appeared in NVRC News, May 16, 2004
The State of the Union for Hearing Aids
We hear it all the time at NVRC. "Why are hearing aids so
expensive?" Twenty five years ago I remember writing a piece that
asked why we, when we can put a man on the moon and hear him at Mission
Control, we cannot not invent a good, cheap hearing aid. Such hearing
aids still aren't available.
Today technology enables our police and intelligence personnel to
isolate certain sounds in the midst of many others, and there's
technology to reconstruct recordings that have degraded, but we still
have hearing aids that can't help us in noisy settings.
More on this and related topics
Adding insult to injury is the continuing failure to make the hearing
aids we do have available to people who need them. People who experience
hearing loss are dumbfounded to find there is so little help to purchase
them. Our NVRC fact sheet "Financial Assistance for Buying Hearing
Aids" is a publication that flies off the shelves. But it's largely
depressing news. If you are poor, especially if you are a child, you
probably qualify for a program that will help buy the hearing aids. If
you are rich, you can handle the cost. But if you're in that huge group
of adult and middle class people, tough luck kiddo.
What's Wrong With This Picture?
Expensive hearing aids ought to be the ones with gold plating that a
woman wears to complement evening wear, with diamonds or to accent the
array microphones as they drape ever so beautifully on a gold chain
about her neck -- the exception, not the rule.
Hearing devices with all the bells and whistles for good hearing in
noise ought to be the rule, not the exception.
And the ability to have funding for a device that will enable you to
communicate more effectively -- with your family, your schoolmates, your
co-workers, and the guy who stops you on the street to ask for
directions -- should be a given. It helps keep relationships strong. It
increases productivity for everyone. It is important to safety, both of
the person wearing the hearing aids, and those under that person's care
and supervision. It's smart, it's cost-effective, and it's the right
thing to do.
So why isn't it a reality?
A Question of Priorities
The answer can be complex, or it can be very simple. I'm going for
simple. The simple answer goes well beyond the issue of hearing aids
- We need to be pouring money into public education to support
prevention. At NVRC I see a constant flow of new research results tying
hearing loss to genes, noise, disease, alcohol, drugs, diabetes, reduced
circulation, and all kinds of other factors. Many causes of hearing loss
are ones we can, but don't, avoid. We need to cherish our hearing more.
We need to emphasize that the issue is not just about the inability to
hear but about the need to communicate, - a need so basic that it has to
rank with food, clothing and shelter.
- We need to be pouring dollars into basic research to better
understand the ear and the brain, and how, combined, they give us what
we call 'hearing'. The Deafness Research Foundation has tried to address
this, and it deserves our support. We must hold our members of Congress
accountable for great increases in funding to the National Institutes of
Health for basic research in these areas. This research will help us
continue to better identify ways to correct and cure hearing loss.
- We need to use all the means at our disposal to support those who
do have hearing loss with whatever tools will help them, both hearing
aids and other assistive listening devices that enhance their
effectiveness. We also need to give them an orientation to hearing loss
and teach them basic coping skills, with programs like that of the Steve
Hodges Foundation, Helen Keller National Center, Sam Trychin, and
community based ones like NVRC's "Coping with Hearing Loss"
series developed by Bonnie O'Leary and support groups initiated by Joan
Back to the Subject of Cheap Hearing Aids
One company, Songbird, has a disposable hearing aid. It's like the
reading glasses you can pick up at Wal-Mart or Costco. There's a
pleasant Songbird store in Old Town Alexandria where you can buy one.
The device is cheap, but intended only for short term use for people
with simple and slight hearing losses. A year's supply would be likely
to cost about the same as a conventional hearing aid, if not more.
Dr. Mead Killion and his wife, Dr. Gail
Gudmundsen, petitioned the
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in August 2003 to sell hearing aids
over the counter and eliminate the current requirement for a hearing
screening by a physician or signing of a waiver saying you understand
the risks in not having such a screening.
The petition was denied in February 2004. Dr.
Killion, a respected
audiologist and developer of the K-Amp used by most manufacturers to
improve their hearing aids, would like to sell over-the-counter hearing
aids. He says his goal is to make them available cheaply and easily. Dr.
Killion has another FDA petition that requests the agency to create a
new classification for hearing aids.
An article by Ann Zimmerman in the March 24, 2004 issue of The Wall
Street Journal says that Killion believes an effective hearing aid for
people with mild-to-moderate hearing loss could be built with current
technology and sold for around $100.
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