Can You Hear Me Now? Why Isn’t My Hearing Aid Covered?

Ellen Berlin

Ellen Berlin

By Ellen Berlin
Guest Contributor

I took the hearing test on a whim at a health fair, pretty confident that as a healthy 35-year-old, I would pass with flying colors. Not so. I failed, miserably. I was so stunned at the results that I asked to take the test again. I thought that if I tried a little harder, I could pass. I failed again.

There are 35 million people who are hard of hearing, and I, apparently, am one of them. Still, the news was tough to hear.

Shortly after the failed tests, I went to a follow-up meeting with an otolaryngologist with much apprehension.  Maybe this was a temporary condition or better yet, maybe the test results were a mistake. Not so. The doctor explained where I was on a hearing spectrum — not in a good place — and to my shock, was recommending hearing aids…two! He was sure that I had been overcompensating for my hearing loss and that the hearing aids would offer me untold benefits.

I wasn’t so sure.  To start, I thought I was fine.  After a lengthy discussion I conceded that maybe I had a small problem. I started to think about the possibility of getting a hearing aid but it was tough, very tough, to think beyond  the cost — approximately $1700 each.  Like me, most people are surprised to learn that hearing aids are not routinely covered under most private insurance plans or traditional Medicare.

(Things have improved slightly in recent years, according to Kaiser Health News: “In a national survey of people who bought hearing aids in 2008, nearly 40 percent said their health insurance paid some portion of the cost, up a few points from four years earlier…” But even when coverage exists, KHN notes, it’s “generally pretty skimpy.)

NPR reported this week that Congress is considering a $500 tax credit for the purchase of hearing aids. This news gives hope for some needed action.

Lucky for me, my doctor was exceedingly patient and persuasive. We agreed that I would try one for 30 days — though I still wasn’t convinced. I didn’t have to pay for the trial and could simply return the hearing aid after 30 days. I figured I didn’t have much to lose.

I quickly realized that the doctor was right. I was amazed at what I had been missing. So, I swallowed my pride, tightened my budget and scrounged up the money to purchase my first hearing aid.  About 8 months later, I bought a second hearing aid. It was like a whole new world had opened up for me.

I can now hear people in meetings that I couldn’t previously hear and I hear better on the telephone.

And here’s a funny story: When I first got the hearing aid, I heard one of my colleagues singing to herself. I said to another colleague: “She is singing today. She must be happy about something.” My colleague replied, “She sings every day. You just never heard it before!!”

Hearing aids are not perfect. There are still many places and situations that are very difficult, but I am usually able to get by or compensate.  Hearing aid technology is continuously improving, so who knows what is on the horizon?

There were no obvious reasons for my hearing loss and to this day, I don’t know the cause. But I do know that hearing aids are a lifeline. Without them, I am sure I would not been able to continue working and would likely have needed some type of government assistance.

It is deeply troubling  that something so critical to overall health is not routinely covered by insurance. Why is this? Maybe it’s because the hard of hearing community doesn’t have a strong voice or a powerful lobby? Maybe we don’t want to raise our voices because of the stigma that comes with our condition?

Now, we are starting to whisper. This Congressional action is a start. But, as those of us with hearing loss know, whispers are not often heard. We need to start shouting.

Ellen Berlin is a public relations executive in Boston.

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  • Srimer

    Thank you, Ellen–and commonhealth–for your openness in sharing your story. It will help a lot of people. I love the part about hearing your colleague singing. What about your hero, Bruce springsteen? Do you hear him better now at concerts?
    Sara

  • http://www.comability.com.au/ Andrea Cooper

    How lucky you are that they only cost you $3,400… In Australia the absolute cheapest hearing aid costs about that each!!! Private health care benefits are minimal (if your lucky you might get $500 once off for the pair).  However, If your on a disability or seniors pension you can get them free which is great.

    So what happens to those of us in the workforce who find we need hearing aides to enable us to hold a job. In this country (where we do have a reasonable government health system- medicare). Low income health card holders can get hearing aids for 40% off retail.. great- but I still needed to find $5,000- Thankfully my family could help. Mind you there is no benefit/discount government or private for maintaining your hearing aids, which were at one stage costing me about $200 a year in batteries before any maintance (my latest aides, baterries now only about $120/year)

    As a communications practioner who was specialising in special projects, I gradually realised that my hearing issues were impacting on my ability to get long term work. Unfortuantely, in my work I found an incredible lack of tolerance especially amongst other some communicators that I’ve worked with.

    All is not lost however, I’m now turning my disadvantage into an advantage and hopefully doing something positive in my country for those with sensory disability .. I’ve started a communications consultancy – ComAbility. My work is about empower the PR communications sector to take on skills and responsibility to reach audiences (as part of their everyday work), whose ability to recieve information falls outside the mainstream ie those with a sensory/cognitive disability or limitation, from diverse cultures and or with low English literacy…

    PR practioners with hearing loss unite!- Seriously I’d be happy to explore this with others and add value. 

    Andrea Cooper
    http://www.comability.com.au

  • Amy Lischko

     I don’t think what you describe is a truly competitive market. Can you get details and specifications for hearing aids (like detailed gain curves across the bandwidth) and are you as a consumer able to compare products across manufacturers?  The hearing aid market is a closed market. You are at the mercy of the audiologist and hearing aid vendors when you buy. If the market was open and competitive I believe the prices would drop and quality

    would improve.  I think there are examples in medicine of good competitive markets……although they are few and far between because of the distortion insurance has caused.  And for the record, I do not believe infertility should be a mandated benefit either. 

  • BD

    Competition, Amy? Oh, right, competition works so well in keeping down costs in health care. Actually, what we need here is some justice. I’d love to have someone explain why insurance companies in Massachusetts are required to pay for IVF procedures that cost 10s of thousands of dollars – and up – to make it possible for couples who do not have a disability or illness of any kind, conceive. After all, there is a bell curve of normal fertility – people at one end of the curve can walk past a parked Chevy while holding hands and instantly become pregnant, while others can have unprotected sex their entire lives and never conceive. Yes, there are some women and men with medical conditions that prevent them from conceiving – and they should have IVF covered.

    On the other hand, there is a normal hearing bell curve, and then there are people who are hearing impaired due to genetics or damage to some portion of their auditory system. Those people are legally disabled, included in the federal ADA. Their employers are required to provide devices and supports necessary for them to do their jobs. So why shouldn’t health insurance plans – and Medicare – be required to cover the cost of hearing aids?

    I’m listening.

  • Amy Lischko

    I agree that hearing aids are much too expensive but I don’t think your solution is the right one.  Providing a tax credit or including aids in your insurance coverage will just transfer this cost to other taxpayer or health insurance purchasers.  What this market needs is some competition.  Currently, most people get channeled through their audiologists office for the purchase of hearing aids….it seems to me that the beneficiaries of this arrangement are the audiologists.  With technology where it is today with sophisticated blue tooth earpieces, we should put pressure on manufacturers and audiologists to open up this market so consumers can get a reasonable price for this important device.  Who would have thought that the contact lens market would be where it is today?  Insurance coverage and tax credits will only make this situation worse! 

    • Ellen

      Competition already exists in the hearing aid market. There are a couple of really good, smart companies that make hearing aids. It is likely that because of the competition, the technology continually improves. In fact, hearing aid technology has improved tremendously in the years since I was first diagnosed. 

      I don’t think the audiologists are making money on hearing aids. 

      The issue as I see it is how do we take something that is  needed and unaffordable  and make it affordable and accessible.   

    • Vicepresident

      Amy and Ellen, I want to share some information about the hearing aid tax credit.  You’ve used the term and have misunderstood what it’s provisions are to be.  Your discussion about prices, audiologists, and “open market” is a separate discussion.  But the hearing aid tax credit does NOT propose to help pay for hearing aids.  It is a tax credit of $500 per hearing aid, which hearing aid wearers can claim once every 5 years. This is a VERY MODEST proposal.  A tax credit is earned because a tax payer has an expense that will not go away all year long, like the cost of raising a child, or of paying college tuition.

      I am VP of the Houston Chapter of the Hearing Loss Association.  (By the way I urge all new hearing aid wearers to join a local chapter for further information.  This is a support group and I’m happy to say I got a chance to meet Congressman Pete Olsen, of Sugarland Texas who supports this bill.  However, the Congressional schedule has been so bumpy of late, it has note made it to a vote yet.  

      The price of hearing aids is high, but the price of daily use adds up.  $500 over a five year period does not even pay for batteries.  Ellen wrote, “ Maybe it’s because the hard of hearing community doesn’t have a strong voice or a powerful lobby?”  This is more than just a guess.  No, we do not!  I urge anyone coping with hearing loss to join a local chapter of the HLA soon.  This is what needs to take shape.  Few people like to discuss the issue.  The HLA provides advocacy, information, and support, but what I push for most strongly is to change public perception about hearing loss, and to get issues about it into national forms of media.  I welcome questions from anyone.  (vicepresident@hearingloss-houston.org)  For example, I am very excited because we are currently running a petition to get national publication of a new Superhero called The Blue Ear.  This is a Marvel Character that has been created but not yet published.  I feel this type of presense in the media only helps public awareness.