Let’s start with a no-brainer: hearing loss is one of the most common conditions affecting older people (although people of all ages can be at risk), and hearing aids have been proven to improve not only hearing and communication, but also the overall quality of life.
That is a non-disputable fact, supported by many studies. So what is the problem, you may ask? The problem is that far too many people who could greatly benefit from hearing devices can’t afford them. Just as medical care in general remains inaccessible for millions of people, so does the hearing health. It’s sad, but unfortunately true. Just look at the numbers:
Alarming Hearing Loss Statistics
According to National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), approximately 17 percent of American adults, or 36 million people, report some degree of hearing loss, making hearing impairment “among the leading public health concerns.”
However, even though hearing loss is the third most prevalent chronic health condition facing older Americans, many children and young people are also impacted by it. Better Hearing Institute (BHI) reports that:
- 1 in 6 baby boomers (ages 41-59), or 14.6%, have a hearing problem;
- 1 in 14 Generation Xers (ages 29-40), or 7.4%, already have hearing loss;
- At least 1.4 million children (18 or younger) have hearing problems; it is estimated that 3 in 1,000 infants are born with serious to profound hearing loss.
As these statistics demonstrate, the problem is widespread. But here’s the crunch: While 95 percent of people with hearing loss can be helped by hearing aids, only 23 percent currently use them, according to a study published in Hearing Review in July 2005, as cited on the BHI’s website.
Among the primary reasons why so many people forego treatment is the cost of hearing aids, which range, on average, from $1,800 to $5,000 per ear.
Considering that hearing health specialists recommend a hearing aid in each ear for most sufferers, the cost is truly prohibitive to many people. To make matters worse, neither Medicare nor most private insurance plans cover the cost, which means that, as BHI points out, “over 70 percent of hearing aid purchases involve no third party payment, so consumers often bear the entire burden.”
Unfortunately, many people decide not to get hearing aids at all because they just can’t afford them.
Out Of Reach
In the summer of 2009, the NIDCD, which is part of National Institutes of Health, sponsored a working group on Accessible and Affordable Hearing Health Care for Adults with Mild to Moderate Hearing Loss. Its purpose was “to develop a research agenda to increase accessibility and affordability of hearing health care for adults with mild to moderate hearing loss, including accessible and low cost hearing aids.”
The group defined “hearing health care” as assessment and access to hearing aids and non-medical treatment. “Access” was defined as hearing screening/assessment, as well as acquiring a device and services to improve an individual’s hearing loss and communication needs.
While the group acknowledged that “untreated hearing loss has social and economic ramifications” – not exactly a news bulletin – it also conceded that “a hearing aid wearer may spend tens of thousands of dollars acquiring and maintaining hearing aids. Given these factors, hearing aids can be among the most expensive items purchased by many Americans after their home or car.”
The group also noted that “in the U.S., in contrast to many other nations, there are no readily accessible low cost hearing screening programs,” adding what many of us already know - that “hearing aids are necessary healthcare devices, and thus there is a compelling need for better alternatives for access.”
The existing problem has been clearly stated. Question is – what solutions are there?
The NIDCD working group did not offer quick and easy solutions, but it did come up with recommendations for further research. To learn more about their recommendations visit: NIDCD Working Group on Accessible and Affordable Hearing Health Care for Adults with Mild to Moderate Hearing Loss.
Among them, areas such as access, screening, assessment, innovative hearing aid technology, after-care, delivery systems, and regulatory issues, are mentioned as topics of particular interest that need to be focused on in order to find effective and satisfactory solutions.
As often happens in such cases, no tangible, immediate solutions came out of the working group, though the NIDCD vowed that “future activities and initiatives seeking to address these research recommendations will be forthcoming.”
In the meantime, is there anything you can do to have a better access to hearing aids?
No Immediate Relief In Sight
The change, if it comes at all, will not happen overnight. As you may already know if you read this site, many hearing impaired people pin their hopes on the Hearing Aid Tax Credit Act, a proposed legislation now working (albeit very slowly) its way through both houses of Congress. The bill would give a $500 tax credit to people who buy hearing aids, if they are age 55 or older or are buying them for a dependent child. True, $500 may be just a drop in the bucket considering the cost of hearing aids, but it’s better than nothing at all.
Persons with hearing loss who need hearing aids may also consider seeking financial aid to defray the costs through their state and local departments of social services, or fraternal organizations like the Kiwanis and Lions Club International. Healthy Hearing provides a free comprehensive consumer funding guide for hearing aids and cochlear implants divided by national and state organizations. To receive your free copy visit Healthy Hearing’s free Consumer Guides section.
In addition BHI lists various sources of this nature in their financial assistance section on their website.
Whichever way you look at it, access to and affordability of hearing health remains a challenge for tens of millions of Americans, with no satisfactory solutions visible on the near horizon.