by Debbie Dingell and Max Richtman
Many American seniors suffer from some form of hearing loss. But millions of retirees can’t afford treatment because traditional Medicare doesn’t cover hearing aids, which can cost thousands of dollars each.
Medicare covers testing strips for diabetics and wheelchairs for people who can no longer walk. Why not hearing aids? Rep. Debbie Dingell has introduced the Medicare Hearing Aid Coverage Act, which would expand benefits to include hearing exams and hearing aids.
Some 75-80% of adults with hearing loss are not using hearing aids, usually because of the prohibitive costs. A 2012 study from Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit found that people who are fortunate enough to have insurance that covers hearing aids were more likely to obtain them. The study’s authors say that “although hearing aids [are] an obvious solution for… mild-to-moderate hearing loss, the disparity between the number of adults with such hearing loss and the number who pursue hearing aid solutions is substantial.”
This not only prevents these older Americans from hearing everyday conversations with friends, family and caregivers; it can lead to even more serious health conditions. Seniors with untreated hearing loss are more vulnerable to isolation, depression, early onset dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Poor hearing can also jeopardize seniors’ physical safety. Studies suggest that people with hearing loss are at a greater risk of falling and being hospitalized.
These are avoidable tragedies for beneficiaries and their loved ones — and a significant strain on Medicare’s finances. In fact, adding basic hearing coverage to Medicare could save the program money in the long run, because it costs less to care for healthier seniors.
A 2019 University of Michigan study found that seniors with hearing aids are at lower risk for fall-related injuries, dementia, depression and anxiety than patients whose hearing loss is uncorrected. Medicare hearing aid coverage would allow more seniors to live healthier lives with dignity. Our beloved parents, grandparents and friends deserve nothing less.
Expanding Medicare coverage could also go a long way toward eliminating disparities in hearing care. University of Michigan researchers found that men were more likely to receive hearing aids than women. Only 6% of Latino people with hearing loss have hearing aids, compared to nearly 10% of African Americans and 13% of Whites. Medicare isn’t perfect, but it serves as an equalizer for access to quality health care by providing benefits to all eligible Americans, regardless of race or socioeconomic status.
No seniors should feel isolated, confused or shut out from the world because they can’t afford hearing aids. The new political landscape in Washington presents the best opportunity in years to add this crucial coverage to traditional Medicare. We will work hard to make sure that the Medicare Hearing Aid Coverage Act becomes law. When that happens, it will be news that seniors and their families have been waiting a long time to hear.
Debbie Dingell is a Democratic congresswoman representing Michigan’s 12th congressional district. Max Richtman is president and CEO of the nonprofit National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
This Op-Ed was first published on April 26, 2021 in The Detroit News