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  • Cameron Oglesby

New hearing aid deregulation could be music to your ears

Back in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration deregulated air travel, interstate trucking, and phone service, the result was more competition, better service, and markedly lower pricing. Now, thanks to nameless, faceless bureaucrats at the FDA, the same is about to happen with prescription hearing aids a little over a month from now.

That’s good news for the 28.8 million US adults who could benefit from using hearing aids, particularly for the 70% of those aged 70 or older who could use hearing aids but don’t.

One reason they don’t is fear that being seen with a hearing aid will visually stigmatize them as old fogeys. But another reason, until mid-October, is cost.

The soon to expire regulations make hearing aids expensive. Very expensive.

Unlike sound amplifiers, they don’t just increase volume; they also adjust for frequency response. (Age-related hearing loss doesn’t occur evenly across the frequency spectrum. High frequencies, which include not only pitch but also sibilance, are often the first to go.)

So the only way to get hearing aids was by prescription, which involved hearing tests, the prescription from a specialist itself, and then fitting and fine-tuning services. Medicare Part B covers only the diagnostic tests, and then with a deductible and 20% co-pay. Medicare Advantage Plans offer more hearing coverage, but how much varies from plan to plan.

Then there was the cost of the prescription hearing aids themselves.

According to the Wall Street Journal, a total of four manufacturers control a total of 84% of the hearing aid market, and the prescription requirement, which they successfully lobbied for over the years, created a high entry barrier for would-be competitors.

So it’s no wonder that hearing aids can cost as much as $7,000 per pair, according to the National Council on Aging.

Here’s how the new deregulation will change all that. If you’ve over 18 and have mild to moderate hearing problems (e.g., trouble understanding conversations in groups or on the phone), you’ll be able to buy FDA-approved over-the-counter hearing aids directly, at pharmacies, retail stores, and online. These will be air-conduction hearing aids (worn inside or behind the ear) with user-adjusted controls and lower maximum volume.

And also lower prices.

How much lower? It depends on whom you ask. The FDA estimates a pair of OTC hearing aids will cost $2800 less. Barbara Kelley, executive director of the Hearing Loss Association of America, estimates that prices could drop to as low as $300 to $500 per ear.

The entry of new manufacturers into the category will increase competition and decrease prices. Speaker manufacturer Bose already has a self-fitting FDA-approved hearing aid you can buy for $850 online. Since 2013, Apple iPhones have had hearing aid-compatible Bluetooth software (including dampeners, amplification, and Conversation Boost, which focuses AirPods Pro on the voice of the person directly in front of you). Costco’s Kirkland hearing aids sell for $1,399 a pair, including recharger.

Of course, since everybody’s hearing is different, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to spend some of the money you save on an audiologist visit, for fitting and fine-tuning your new OTC hearing aids.

In fact, because everyone’s different from everyone else, it would also be a good idea to have a senior care management plan that’s fine-tuned to your and your family’s specific priorities, values, and physical, emotional and psychosocial needs. Which is precisely what our thorough three-part needs assessment does.

So why not contact us to learn more about it. I think you’ll like what you hear.

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