Medicare and Hearing Aids

Medicare doesn’t cover hearing aids. This is the one thing about hearing loss that never fails to surprise people new to the field. The fact that Medicare doesn’t cover hearing aids even for the most severe and disabling hearing loss is even more shocking. Despite universal agreement among health care practitioners that untreated hearing loss can lead to serious mental and physical problems in older adults, Medicare won’t support the single best treatment: hearing aids.

The Good News.  On December 16, Congress passed a bipartisan bill to cover hearing aids and hearing audiology services. HR 3 allows the Federal government to negotiate prescription drug prices and use these savings to cover the costs of hearing, dental and vision services. This is an issue that the Hearing Loss Association of America and other groups have been advocating for for years. In addition to covering hearing aids, the bill permits reclassifying audiologists as practitioners under Medicare, qualifying them for reimbursement. The audiology professional groups — the AAA, ADA, and ASHA — urged the Senate to adopt the measures. HLAA praised the action as a “significant step forward.”

The Caveats. While celebrating the passage of HR 3 as a historic achievement, HLAA urged caution. The bill must be passed by the Senate, where there is significant opposition to negotiating drug prices. “Senators, as well as the Trump Administration, are exploring other ways to lower the cost of prescription drugs,” HLAA said in a statement. “Whether these alternatives will also include hearing aid coverage under Medicare remains to be seen.”

Don’t Wait to Get Hearing Aids. The sooner you treat hearing loss, the more effective the treatment is likely to be. So don’t wait for Congress to get its act together and actually make this provision law.

The National Institute on Aging notes that untreated hearing loss can lead to depression and isolation, as well as cognitive decline and dementia. Hearing problems are also also associated with greater risk of falls, which can be devastating for a vulnerable adult. Medicare doesn’t cover vision or dental care either, meaning that older adults may be on their own financially when it comes to three components of healthy aging. It’s a short-sighted policy and one that may finally be rectified.

If you can’t afford hearing aids sold through private audiologists, alternatives exist. Consider the big box stores like Costco, which sells brand name hearing aids at lower prices than independents. Other stores like Best Buy, Sam’s Club and Walgreens also sell hearing aids, although they cannot legally be called “hearing aids” without FDA approval. Many insurers sell affiliated  brands of hearing aids at a much lower cost than you would pay privately. United HealthCare, for instance, sells hearing aids through hiHealth Innovations. HearingTracker allows you to compare hearing aid prices in a geographical area, Readers, please share other alternatives to high-priced hearing aids in the comments section.

Consumer electronics products are good starter hearing devices (Don’t go too cheap.)  In addition, sometime in 2020 the FDA will issue its regulations for over-the-counter hearing aids, making access to FDA approved hearing aids cheaper and more accessible.

For now, it’s great that Congress was able to take a little time out from impeachment to get this important bill on the agenda.

For more about living with hearing loss, read my books: Smart Hearing and Shouting Won’t Help.