WASHINGTON – Advocates for the elderly were ecstatic last month when Congress passed a new law that will make some hearing aids available without a prescription.
When it’s fully implemented in several years, the new law is expected to reduce the cost of devices that will help those with mild to moderate hearing loss. The law also requires the Food and Drug Administration to write regulations to ensure the new hearing aids are covered by the same safety, consumer labeling and manufacturing protections as other medical devices.
“By passing this legislation and making some hearing aids available over the counter, we will increase competition, spur innovation, and bring down prices,” said Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who sponsored the bill.
– Medicare Advocacy (@CMAorg) August 23, 2017
Hearing aids are among the big-ticket medical needs not covered by Medicare – the federal health insurance program for people 65 and older. Medical experts say untreated hearing loss can lead to more serious health problems and injuries, including falls and higher risk of dementia.
Medicare also doesn’t cover glasses, eye exams, or dentistry, despite the fact that untreated vision and dental problems also worsen age-related health conditions.
According to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare:
- Hearing loss affects more than 40 percent of people over 60 years old, more than 60 percent of those over age 70, and almost 80 percent of those over 80 years old. Currently, only 1 in 5 Americans diagnosed with hearing loss has a hearing aid because they usually cost more than $2,000 per ear. More than half of all Medicare beneficiaries have incomes less than $2,100 per month.
- Individuals over age 70 account for approximately 80 percent of the 2.8 million Americans with low vision, defined as vision loss, other than blindness, not correctable with refraction, medication or surgery. But Medicare doesn’t cover routine eye exams, which can range in cost from $50 to $300 or more. Medicare also doesn’t cover prescription eyeglasses, which usually cost around $200.
- Nearly 70 percent of older Americans have no form of dental insurance, which keeps many of them from obtaining oral care.
Expanding Medicare coverage
Democratic members of Congress including Ohio’s Marcy Kaptur of Toledo, Tim Ryan of the Niles area and Joyce Beatty of Columbus are pushing for legislation that would expand Medicare coverage to include hearing aids, dentistry and glasses. A separate bill backed by Kaptur would cover hearing aids alone under Medicare. Neither bill cites a cost for the benefits it would provide, or stipulates how to pay for them.
“Congress should require coverage of hearing aids to assist seniors with the soaring costs of these essential devices,” said a statement from Kaptur.
Organizations like the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare and Medicare endorse expanding Medicare’s services, but their experts believe there’s little chance it will happen when Republicans who have suggested paring back the program are in charge of Congress.
House Speaker Paul Ryan wants to replace Medicare with a voucher system that senior citizens could use to buy private insurance, and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has repeatedly warned that Medicare is running out of resources. President Donald Trump has pledged to protect Medicare, but hasn’t discussed any expansions.
– Tom Price, M.D. (@SecPriceMD) July 14, 2017
Dan Adcock of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare observed that it took many years to add prescription drug benefits to Medicare in 2003. The current bills will highlight the need for services and build support in hopes of future passage, he said.
Adcock estimated the Medicare hearing aid benefit would cost $100 billion over ten years. Dental and vision benefits would also be expensive. But he said providing the benefits would save the program money in the long run by cutting down on serious health problems that stem from not getting regular hearing, vision and dental care, such as accidents, falls, cognitive impairments, an increase in chronic conditions, and oral cancer.
“Anything of this magnitude would require time,” said AARP Senior Legislative Representative Andrew Scholnick.
Allowing hearing aids to be sold without a prescription
Meanwhile, advocates for the elderly are hopeful last month’s passage of the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act in a Food and Drug Administration reauthorization bill will remove some of the cost barriers that can prevent people from getting the devices.
Before the law’s passage, consumers had to buy hearing aids through certified audiologists, which drove up the price. Adcock said the new law will encourage more technology manufacturers to produce the lower-cost hearing devices, increase the market, and reduce costs.
The bill was opposed by hearing aid makers, as well as gun owners groups that claimed it was a backdoor way to regulate hearing amplifiers that some hunters use to detect game and interfere with their Second Amendment rights.
“By passing this legislation and making some hearing aids available over the counter, we will increase competition, spur innovation, and bring down prices,” Warren said after the bill’s passage.
Warren bill on hearing aids draws opposition from gun rights groups https://t.co/ZaKC2xqv8A NRA, put DOWN the hallucinogens!
– mactavish (@mactavish) May 30, 2017