Posted On: April 24, 2012 by Patrick A. Malone

"Say What? The Problem with Hearing Aid Costs?"

The next time you’re annoyed by someone with impaired hearing who constantly asks you to repeat what you’ve said, try to restrain the urge to ask,“Why don’t you get a hearing aid?”

Because for many such folks, the answer might be that they can’t afford it. As reported by KaiserHealthNews.org (KHN), a hearing aid typically costs a few thousand dollars, sometimes more, and most insurance plans don’t cover the cost. Even Medicare, whose older patient demographic is prime for hearing loss, generally keeps the purse strings closed.

Only 1 in 4 of the 35 million adults in the U.S. who would benefit from having a hearing aid actually gets one, according to KHN.

As disappointing as it is to know that hearing loss isn’t considered worthy of coverage, the situation isn’t as bad as it used to be. A survey of people who bought hearing aids in 2008 showed that nearly 4 in 10 received an insurance contribution, which was somewhat more generous than four years earlier.

Insurance plans usually cover tests (or some of them) to evaluate hearing. But if the loss is sufficient for the care provider to prescribe a hearing aid, insurance generally amounts to only $500 to $1,000 for the device once every two to five years. They need to be replaced, on average, every four to six years.

One woman whose story was told in the KHN report began to lose her hearing as a young woman. She got her first hearing aid at 35, and by the time she was 40 had one in each ear. She estimates that she bought 11 hearing aids over the following two decades that cost approximately $25,000, all of which she paid as a customer of the individual health insurance market.

Still, there is cause for hope. A program introduced this year by UnitedHealthcare called hi Health Innovations is intended to make affordable hearing aids—ranging in cost from $749 to $949—available to both its members and the general public. The discounts of 30 to 50 percent are available because the company buys in bulk. Plan members might get an even better deal.

Patients can take a hearing test online, submit it for evaluation and choose among the four HI hearing aids. The selection is programmed to the patients’ specifications and mailed to them. The online operation also offers help with service issues, and there’s a toll-free customer service line at (855) 523-9355.

HI audiologists and hearing aid dispensers (who are also licensed, but with less training than audiologists) are located in major cities around the country. Email the company for information at hicustomerservice@hihealthinnovations.com

The program is too new to assess success, but advocacy groups are hopeful it can address the gaping hole in treatment for hearing loss. As Lise Hamlin of the Hearing Loss Association of America said, "We think getting hearing aids into people's hands is hugely important. But the test may be wrong or the hearing aids may not work for most people. So we're taking a wait-and-see attitude."

Some hearing loss is so profound a hearing aid is not the solution. Surgery might be. In that case, insurance coverage, including Medicare, generally is available. The procedure involves a small electronic device called a cochlear implant that stimulates the auditory nerve.

For more information about hearing loss and how to treat it, visit the Hearing Loss Association of America website.

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