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Easier listening: Hearing aids will be more accessible, but there's a caution

By GRETCHEN M. GROSKY
New Hampshire Union Leader

September 04. 2017 9:11PM
Hearing aids soon will be available over-the-counter for people with mild to moderate hearlng loss through a federal bill cosponsored by Sen. Maggie Hassan. (GRETCHEN GROSKY/UNION LEADER)

When the words on a page get a little blurrier, many people head to their local pharmacy to buy a pair of readers.

Soon, those with mild to moderate hearing loss will be able to get that same do-it-yourself fix by walking into a store and picking up a hearing aid under a new federal law cosponsored by U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-NH.

Hassan said the measure will make it easier for many of the 48 million hearing-impaired Americans to get a device they need at a price they can afford. Hearing aids can cost more than $3,500, and New Hampshire is only one of four states that requires insurers to cover the cost for adults. These devices are also not covered by Medicare.

“They will be more accessible — but that’s about the only benefit as I see it,” said Julie Johnson, an audiologist with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon.

Hassan’s office said making these devices available over-the-counter will lower costs of the devices and take away the added expense of bundled services many patients never need or use. Hassan’s figures show that only about 20 percent of those with hearing loss use a hearing aid, with cost being a major factor, especially for older Americans.

The Hearing Loss Association of America estimates that one in three people will experience hearing loss after age 65, and that number climbs to one in two people at age 70.

“The hope is that the costs of over-the-counter hearing aids will be in the hundreds of dollars, rather than the thousands of dollars — which is what consumers currently face,” wrote Hassan’s press secretary Ricki Eshman. “The Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act is a common-sense step to address this issue and bring real cost savings to older Americans, while spurring innovation in the market.”

Ear evaluation

Making these devices easier to get may be one solution, but Johnson said she is concerned people will skip a trip to a medical professional first.

“That’s the part that is kind of scary for us — skipping that evaluation step,” Johnson said. “It would behoove everyone to get a hearing test first to see if (a hearing aid) is appropriate.”

Currently, a doctor must prescribe the device or the patient needs to sign a waiver saying they are buying it without an evaluation, said Carole Rogin, president of the Hearing Industries Association.

Rogin said there are many underlying conditions that can contribute to hearing loss, but some like ear wax build-up, infections and tumors can be treated and the loss corrected.

Without the evaluation, these conditions could go untreated resulting in permanent hearing loss, she said.

“Everyone thinks they have hearing loss, but you really don’t know without an evaluation,” Rogin said. “People will try and do it themselves when they really need a professional to evaluate their needs.”

Hearing isn’t seeing

Rogin also said there is no comparison between store-bought reading glasses and over-the counter hearing aids. She said sight is a “mechanical function,” while hearing is a “brain function.”

She said there is no hearing measure that is “analogous to 20/20 vision.” She equated hearing loss with conditions like glaucoma or macular degeneration that cannot be treated with readers.

“Age-related vision loss is easily fixed by making the image larger,” Rogin said. “The problem is that age-related hearing loss is an age-related brain function loss. Simply making things louder doesn’t make them sound better.”

Rogin agrees there are too many people with hearing loss that are going without hearing aids. She said sometimes it’s the expense, and sometimes it happens so slowly that people develop coping mechanisms — such as lip reading — so it doesn’t seem to have a significant impact on their daily lives.

“Like so many other health conditions, people wait,” she said.

Hearing and health

Both Johnson and Rogin warn people that hearing loss has been linked to other serious health conditions with several studies looking at the correlation between hearing loss and declines in cognitive function.

Both pointed to another issue — social isolation as the person withdraws due to their inability to hear. Several studies show that loneliness has the health equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Johnson said other studies have shown that people with hearing loss who use hearing aids suffer fewer falls. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports falls as the leading cause of fatal injuries and trauma-related hospital admissions among older adults.

Regulating over-the-counter

There is no time frame for when these devices will be made available or how much they will lower the cost, according to Hassan’s office.

The law first requires the federal Food and Drug Administration to come up with the method of how and where these over-the-counter hearing aids will be sold, as well define rules for packaging, warnings and the labeling. The bill requires the FDA to issue proposed regulations within three years and finalize the regulations within six months.

“It remains to be seen how this will be implemented,” Rogin said.

Silver Linings is a continuing Union Leader/Sunday news report focusing on the issues of New Hampshire’s aging population and seeking out solutions. Union Leader reporter Gretchen Grosky would like to hear from readers about issues related to aging. She can be reached at ggrosky@unionleader.com or (603) 206-7739. See more at www.unionleader.com/aging.


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