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The High Cost of Hearing Aids, The Question of Priorities

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 alone.

Consider this:

– 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 Cassidy.

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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