About 40 million Americans suffer from hearing loss, according to the Better Hearing Institute. Most would benefit from the use of hearing aids but they are expensive and beyond the reach of many who need them. Can anything be done about this?
Hearing well is important to safety and quality of life. An inability to hear oncoming cars, cooking timers, warning voices, etc., is very hazardous. When a person's hearing is faulty, others avoid conversation. Grandma or Grandpa may be left out of conversations or activities because it is difficult for family members to communicate. Moreover, researchers Peelle and Wingfield found a link between hearing loss and memory problems.
Why do hearing aids cost so much? Audicus, a hearing aid retailer, estimates that the average hearing aid ranges from $1,500 to $3,500. That is a huge expenditure for seniors on modest fixed incomes, many of whom need hearing aids in both ears. The price keeps climbing. Audicus reports that the price of a hearing aid doubled between 1997 and 2008 and continues to do so.
It is odd that an electronic device like a hearing aid has such a high price when the cost of many technological devices is declining. Yet most electronic devices are made by multiple companies, and the stiff competition keeps prices low. This is not the case for hearing aids. A 2016 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) noted that nearly all hearing aids are made by six worldwide companies, which cooperate with one another rather than compete. Hearing aids do not sell at the volume that other electronics devices do. Their market is limited, keeping prices high.
Another factor adding to the price of hearing aids is that they are not sold over the counter. Talking to someone at Best Buy about an electronic device is different from visiting an audiologist and getting a hearing aid prescription, which is required by law.
Because hearing aid manufacturers answer to the Food and Drug Administration for their products, they incur many costs that are passed to the consumer. The NASEM report recommended that over-the-counter hearing aids should become available so the vast number of people who cannot pay high prices have access to them.
Prices for hearing aids stay high because hearing services and devices are not covered by Medicare. Audiologists and manufacturers know they will not be reimbursed by the government. Many insurance companies fail to cover hearing services and devices, too. Thus, higher costs are passed to the consumer. NASEM recommends that Medicare cover hearing loss costs.
One way to save money on hearing aids is to ask questions. Like other technologies, hearing aids have been adding more sophisticated features. However, to the senior who struggles to hear the grandchildren, more features don't matter. Patients should ask about features in detail and make sure they get the most streamlined model for their needs rather than pay for extras they will not use.
To save money, elderly persons with mild to moderate hearing impairment may wish to use of PSAPs (Personal Sound Amplification Products), which resemble traditional hearing aids but do not require prescriptions. Nor are they regulated by the FDA. These factors keep prices lower. A study in The Hearing Review showed that these devices were competitive in effectiveness with hearing aids in cases of mild to moderate hearing loss, making them viable, cost-effective solutions for hearing loss.
Freuhler, P. October 22, 2014). Why Hearing Aids Cost So Much. Audicus. Blog. Available online at https://www.audicus.com/hearing-aid-price-bubble/. Accessed February 1, 2017.
National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (June 2, 2016). Hearing Health Care for Adults: Priorities for Improving Access and Affordability. National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Available online at http://www.nationalacademies.org/hmd/Reports/2016/Hearing-Health-Care-for-Adults.aspx. Accessed February 1, 2017.
Peelle, J. E., Wingfield, A. (July 2016). The Neural Consequences of Age-Related Hearing Loss. Trends in Neurosciences, 39(7): 486-497. Available online at http://www.cell.com/trends/neurosciences/fulltext/S0166-2236(16)30036-4. Accessed February 1, 2017.
Smith, C., Wilber, L.S., Cavitt, K. (June 14, 2016). PSAPs vs. Hearing Aids: An Electroacoustic Analysis of Performance and Fitting Capabilities. The Hearing Review, July 2016. Available online at http://www.hearingreview.com/2016/06/psaps-vs-hearing-aids-electroacoustic-analysis-performance-fitting-capabilities/. Accessed February 1, 2017.