HEALTHCARE
May 19, 2017

Hearing Aids Inspire a Rare Bipartisan Bill

Senators Warren and Grassley want to see some hearing aids sold over the counter -- much the way reading glasses are.

It was a rare bipartisan moment: Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Charles Grassley of Iowa don't often vote the same way, but there's one issue they agree on: hearing aids are far too expensive and some should be sold over-the-counter.

They've published an article explaining why.

Current regulations are much friendlier to the sellers of hearing aids than to their users. Studies show that only 14 percent of older adults who have hearing loss actually use a hearing aid. Their high price is a major reason. Hearing aids can cost over $2,000 and are rarely covered by insurance. They are often sold packaged with a bundle of also costly services that buyers may not want, such as adjusting the hearing aid with proprietary software that insures a customer's repeat business.

Selling people with mild to moderate hearing loss hearing aids over-the-counter, much as reading glasses are sold in drug stores would likely cause the cost of hearing aids to drop considerably.

Two major reports, the first, currently offline during the transition to a new Administration, from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST); and another, from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS), recommend major changes, including selling some people with mild to moderate hearing loss hearing aids over-the-counter, much as reading glasses are sold in drug stores. This would likely cause the cost of hearing aids to drop considerably, similar to what happens when generic versions of drugs are introduced.

As the PCAST report puts it, there is “considerable evidence that hearing aids can be profitably sold for a fraction of today‚Äôs end-user cost.”

The FDA, which regulates hearing aids, took a first step in that direction last year when it said it would no longer enforce the requirement that people obtain a medical evaluation or sign a waiver before they could buy a hearing aid. But that's only a small step.

Senators Warren and Grassley went further, introducing a bill designed to make the idea of over-the-counter hearing aids a reality. That bill was not acted on by the full senate in 2016. They've re-introduced it this year as the Over-the-Counter Hearing Act of 2017.

Hearing loss is more than an inconvenience; it can isolate seniors and have serious medical consequences. How many more people would use hearing aids if they were easier to obtain? Well, that question probably won't be answered unless they do become easier to buy.

You can read Warren and Grassley's full article in JAMA Internal Medicine.
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