May 15, 2017

Like nearly 30 million other Americans, I suffer from hearing loss.  And like four of five seniors similarly impaired, I ignored it – at first.  I told my wife the problem was excess ear wax.  But she kept after me to seek treatment, and eventually I gave in.  Fortunately, I was able to afford prescription hearing aids. Millions of other Americans cannot.  Priced at an average $2400 each, hearing aids are not currently covered by Medicare or most private insurance policies – though they certainly should be. 

In the meantime, a bill introduced by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) with a group of bi-partisan cosponsors could provide the hard of hearing with much-needed relief.  The Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017, as the name implies, would make certain types of hearing aids available over the counter (OTC) to Americans with mild to moderate hearing impairment.   At the same time, the legislation would require the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate this new category of OTC hearing aids – establishing a baseline for consumer safety and reliability.  Similar legislation was introduced in the House by Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA) and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). 

“Millions of Americans experience hearing loss but can't access the hearing aid technology they need because of high costs and excessive regulations,” Senator Warren says.  “By making some hearing aids available over the counter, we can increase competition, spur innovation, and bring down prices.”

That is precisely the bill’s aim:  to expand consumer choices of over the counter hearing aids so that comparable products are available, but cost less than prescription devices.   In a recent study, Consumer Reports found that the average retail markup for prescription hearing aids was a whopping 117 percent.  The price is high because a small group of companies control the hearing aid market, and many health care professionals who sell the devices bundle their costs in the final price paid by consumers. 

Improving access to affordable, quality hearing aids is crucial to seniors’ overall health.  According to the nonprofit Better Hearing Institute, hearing loss is linked to several negative health consequences, including:

  • Fatigue, tension, stress and depression
  • Social isolation and loneliness
  • Reduced alertness and increased risk to personal safety
  • Impaired memory and ability to learn new tasks
  • Reduced job performance and earning power
  • Diminished psychological and overall health

Research indicates that untreated hearing impairment may be linked to dementia, which afflicts some 5 million American seniors.  Researchers aren’t sure exactly how hearing loss contributes to dementia.  Possibilities include:  the social isolation accompanying hearing loss; the excess “cognitive load” that struggling to hear and comprehend puts on the brain; or some common underlying cause between the two health issues.   

Dr. Frank Lin, associate professor of otolaryngology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is one of the leading researchers in this field.  Lin’s studies suggest that “individuals with hearing loss are at a greater risk of developing dementia, falling, and being hospitalized.”

“The greater the hearing loss, the greater the risk of loss of thinking and memory abilities over time,” he recently told National Public Radio.  Dr. Lin vigorously supports Senator Warren’s legislation, believing the latest research should be a “wake-up call to policymakers” in Washington.

“This legislation and the resultant FDA classification would trigger a sea change in the uptake of hearing health care by consumers,” says Dr. Lin.

In light of the raw, hyper-partisan environment on Capitol Hill, it’s encouraging that the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017 has bipartisan support – as well it should. This is a piece of compassionate, common sense legislation that improves public health and transcends party.  Hopefully, members of Congress will hear that message loud and clear.  

Max Richtman is President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.  He was formerly staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Aging.