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How the high cost of hearing aids hurts people who need them

  • Kate Giammarise/WESA
Chelle Wyatt holds her hearing aid Friday, April 15, 2022, in Salt Lake City. People with hearing loss have adopted technology to navigate the world, especially as hearing aids are expensive and inaccessible to many.  (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Chelle Wyatt holds her hearing aid Friday, April 15, 2022, in Salt Lake City. People with hearing loss have adopted technology to navigate the world, especially as hearing aids are expensive and inaccessible to many. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Sarah Valentine was a college student at Point Park University when an audiologist told her she would probably benefit from hearing aids. At the time, she was on her mother’s health insurance plan, but it – like most insurance plans – didn’t cover the cost for the devices.

The price tag? $4,000 – “an unthinkable amount of money for me at the time,” she said.

She was able to afford the hearing aids after saving money from her job, help from her partner, an online Go Fund Me fundraiser, and finally a COVID-19 assistance check from the federal government.

Valentine’s situation is not unique.

Around 38 million Americans have some degree of hearing loss, according to a recent report. But, because of the high price of hearing aids, as few as only one in five people who could benefit from them use one.

The devices are typically not covered by most health insurance plans and are not covered by Medicare.

“My entire life, we’ve had to depend on charity in order to obtain hearing aids. It’s maddening and frustrating,” said Pittsburgher Megan Confer-Hammond, who uses hearing aids.

“No audiologist’s office, no hearing aid company will let you do a payment plan. It is payable upon receipt every single time. And none of the health care legislation over the past decade have addressed it or begin to propose to address it,” Confer-Hammond said.

That high price tag and lack of insurance coverage is what led hundreds of Pittsburghers to line up at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center downtown earlier this month when Mission of Mercy, an annual dental charity clinic, offered hearing tests and hearing aids for the first time.

“There’s a huge need for hearing help for people, whether they have insurance or not,” said Elaine Mormer, an audiologist and professor at the University of Pittsburgh in the Communication Science and Disorders Department. Mormer volunteered at the event, which gave out more than 200 pairs of hearing aids in two days.

A new rule finalized by the Food and Drug administration earlier this month is expected to lower the cost of some devices by allowing them to be sold over the counter. But, while experts say it is a good first step, it is only expected to help people with mild to moderate hearing loss and not everyone who needs hearing aids.

Before she could afford her hearing aids, Valentine often felt upset and isolated when she couldn’t follow conversations in group settings.

“A lot of times, I would be really emotionally distraught at the fact that I’m in this room with all these other people, but I may as well be standing outside and looking through a window because like, that’s how connected I feel,” she said.

That’s far from the only negative consequence.

“Untreated hearing loss is connected to all sorts of negative health and social outcomes. That includes a relationship to cognitive decline, to increased falls, social isolation, depression, anxiety, all things that create poor health outcomes,” said Catherine Palmer, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and head of audiology for UPMC.

The price of hearing aids is typically bundled, including both the cost of the devices and the services of an audiologist. Those services can include matching the technology to the patient’s needs, the fitting to make sure sound is returned correctly, and continuing care, usually for a couple of years, said Palmer.

The cost is usually not covered by insurance because most private insurers look to Medicare, which doesn’t cover hearing aids either, she said.

“So we can’t stop here [with the new FDA rule],” she said. “This is a solution for some people. But having insurance cover hearing aids and cover the services is essential….Acknowledging that that communication is essential to the human condition and we need to support that and everybody needs access to that.”

If you need help affording hearing aids:

In Pittsburgh: Birmingham Free Clinic, or Catholic Charities Free Health Care Center.

In Pennsylvania: Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) (Multiple locations)

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