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Shaping the future of hearing healthcare insurance

If you know you need hearing aids but won't purchase them because your health insurance doesn't cover the cost, it might be time to check your coverage again. Nineteen states now require their health benefits plans provide some type of hearing aid coverage.

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon and Tennessee require health benefits plans in their state pay for children's hearing aids. Arkansas, New Hampshire and Rhode Island require coverage for both children and adults. Wisconsin requires coverage for both hearing aids and cochlear implants for children.

Requirements vary between these states for ages of those to be covered, the amount of coverage and benefit period, and provider qualifications. For example, Delaware requires individual and group health insurance plans to provide coverage for hearing aids for up to $1,000 per ear every three years for children 24 years of age and younger who are considered a dependent of the policy holder while Rhode Island requires individual and group health insurance plans provide $1,500 worth of coverage per ear every three years for dependants under the age of 19, $700 for those 19 and older.

signing documentsOther states, such as Illinois, have been battling to pass hearing aid legislation for several years. Representative Dan Brady is currently sponsoring HB1231, which would amend the Illinois Insurance Code and the state's Voluntary Health Services Plan Act to require coverage for hearing aids when prescribed by a professional. If passed, insurers would provide coverage for up to $2,500 per hearing aid per ear every three years. Illinois first proposed hearing aid legislation in 2010, when hearing health activist JulieAnn Chavez led the charge for SB2516.

Cochlear implants are covered by most private and government insurance companies, and implantable direct bone conduction systems are often covered. Cochlear implants are small, electronic devices containing a microphone, speech processor, transmitter and receiver, and an electrode array with external and internal components. Bone conduction systems use the body's natural ability to conduct sound through bone. The internal component is implanted directly into the bone behind the ear, with an external sound processor. Both devices assist individuals who are severely hearing impaired or profoundly deaf. Both options require major surgery and not all hearing-impaired patients qualify. Please check with your doctor or audiologist if you are interested in learning more.

Why don't private insurance plans cover hearing aids?

Unfortunately, hearing health falls into the same category as poor eyesight and dental care. Insurers often don't consider it a medical necessity.

Also, hearing aids can be expensive. In addition to their short lifespan, there are additional professional fees associated with their use. Cochlear implants and bone conduction systems have a much longer life span, which may explain why insurance companies often provide coverage for those with severe to profound hearing loss.

When will this change?

Baby Boomers may well be the group who affects positive change on this front -- beginning with legislation which mandates hearing healthcare for children. The Early Hearing Detection and Intervention Act of 2010, which became law in December 2010, ensures infants receive hearing screenings and services if they are diagnosed with hearing impairments. EHDI programs include screenings, audiological diagnostic evaluations and early intervention. All 19 states with hearing healthcare legislation include children, while only three require it for both children and adults.

Hearing health advocacy groups are also putting pressure on lawmakers. A proposed Hearing Aid Assistance Tax Credit law would provide a tax credit of up to $500 per hearing aid once every five years for parents purchasing a hearing aid for a dependent child as well as for those over the age of 55. H.R. 1317 is currently being considered by the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee

What to do in the mean time.

Whatever you do, don't wait. Untreated hearing loss leads to a long list of other health conditions, including depression, anxiety and dementia.

If your private insurance doesn't provide coverage for hearing health and you need assistance with the cost of hearing aids, there are other options you can pursue. The Department of Veterans Affairs usually pays for them, so does Medicaid in some states (Medicare does not). Many service organizations, such as the Lion's Club, provide financial assistance to purchase hearing aids. If you are still employed and your hearing impairment interferes with your ability to do your job, ask your local Vocational Rehabilitation Office for assistance.

Finally, don't forget the power of your own legislative voice. Advocate for hearing healthcare coverage by writing a letter to your state senator or representative and urge them to support hearing aid legislation. You can also voice your concerns about lack of insurance coverage for hearing health by contacting the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

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