Organizations representing the Deaf and partially deaf communities joined efforts to make wireless handsets accessible for hearing aids and cochlear implants. This includes cordless and mobile phones.
According to an article by the Hearing Loss Association of America, “When mobile technology moved from analog to digital in the 1990s, it created a huge barrier for people with hearing loss in that suddenly people with hearing loss who could use wireless handsets were faced with interference when they held the phone to their ear.”
Currently, 82 percent of mobile phones on the market are accessible for hearing technology. Only 66 percent of cordless phones are accessible. The association said it has joined with organizations to ensure greater telecommunications accessibility.
According to a comment from the three organizations, “It’s our understanding that the Industry is proposing a modification of the HAC rule to require both manufacturers and service providers to increase the percentage of M-and T-rated HAC wireless handsets they sell to 66% . . . If adopted, Industry’s proposal would leave fully a third of wireless handsets potentially unusable for people with hearing aids or cochlear implants.”
The consumer groups “look forward to working with the Industry and the Commission to ensure greater access to wireless handsets for all consumers with hearing loss,” according to the comment.
According to the report, “Aging American & Hearing Loss: Imperative of Improved Hearing Technologies,” “Only a fraction of consumers who need assistance with hearing obtain and use hearing aids, in large part because of high cost, complex dispensing procedures, social stigma, and performance shortfalls.”
The report focuses on making access to affordable technology more available. According to the report, cost keeps people from seeking out assistive technology for hearing loss. “A 2014 survey found that the average price of one hearing aid was $2,363, with premium models costing $2,898. Many, if not most, individuals need two hearing aids, one in each ear, doubling the cost.”
“One survey found that 64 percent of people with the most serious hearing loss reported that they could not afford a hearing aid, and over 75 percent identified financial factors as a barrier,” according to the report.
For older Americans, legislative action is required to allow Medicare to pay for hearing aids. One survey finds “50 percent of consumers identifying lack of insurance coverage as a barrier to their acquiring a hearing aid. That failure dates from the original 1966 Medicare amendments to the Social Security Act, which bar Medicare from covering hearing aids. Congressional action is required to change this policy . . .”
According to the report, legislation to permit Medicare coverage for hearing aids has been introduced by both political parties, but cost has prevented Congress from adopting the laws because of the number of Americans who could potentially need the technology. “If market forces were to lower costs, the analysis and potential for Congressional action would change.”
“When compared in complexity to today’s smartphones costing a few hundred dollars each, even premium-model hearing aids are simple devices but can cost several thousand dollars,” according to the report. “A 2010 study suggested that a hearing aid’s components then cost less than $100; the number today is likely less.”
There is room for innovation, according to the report, especially when there are only six manufacturers of hearing aids in the country. Which is the most affordable? “Costco now accounts for about 10 percent of all hearing aids sold, and it sells its house brand (reportedly manufactured by one of the big six manufacturers) for about one-third of the typical retail price. . .”
Besides cost, seniors may avoid getting hearing aids because they are worried about how others will perceive them. “Public education can play a role in expanding use, and the arrival of the Baby Boomers as new seniors with different attitudes, including greater familiarity with wearable electronics and greater use, may shift attitudes toward social acceptance,” according to the report.
In a recent email, the Hearing Loss Association of America said it “enthusiastically endorses ” the new report, which it says will “serve to open the market for new innovation in hearing device technologies and also increase choice for consumers with hearing aids…”
According to the association’s email, the report makes four claims. Two regard the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA. One claim is that the FDA “should approve a class of hearing aids for “over-the-counter sales” without requiring an audiologist or doctor. Another is that the FDA should withdraw a “draft guidance on Personal Sound Amplification Products that would forbid the manufacturers “from making truthful claims about the functionality of the product in certain situations…”
Potential problems with this would be some individuals might purchase hearing devices not understanding non-age-related potential causes of hearing loss, including earwax, fluid, or a condition that may be causing hearing loss as a side effect.
According to association’s email, the report also recommends that the Federal Trade Commission should require hearing-aid dispensers to “provide the customer with a copy of their results at no additional cost” and “define a process to authorize hearing aid vendors to obtain a copy of a customer’s hearing test results . . . from any audiologist who performs such a test . . .”
While the council’s report recommends changes affecting the hearing aid marketplace, Congress, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Federal Trade Commission, it closes with the alternative: “the costs and risks of inaction with respect to untreated hearing loss in the aging U.S. population are large.”
Resulting changes would make hearing aids more affordable for all, while enabling Congress to finally allow Medicare to cover hearing aid purchases.