Decibels Audiology Helps Shed Light on Medicare and Hearing Aids
A scientific report detailing the link between hearing loss and cognitive impairment could boost support for Medicare to cover hearing aids for the first time for millions of older Americans, according to senior advocates.
At least four bills in Congress would expand Medicare to cover the cost of hearing aids for seniors, curtailing a coverage gap that has meant many seniors on fixed incomes tolerate poor hearing, according to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
One in eight Americans of all ages have hearing loss in both ears, according to the National Institutes on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Nearly 29 million Americans could benefit from hearing aids.
A June report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine calls for hearing loss to be viewed as a public health priority, not only for the implications of isolation and ties to depression but also because it is shown to double the risk of dementia.
Research has found the brain’s ability to process information is impacted by hearing loss and brain function deteriorates faster when there is undetected or untreated hearing loss, Dr. Frank Lin, co-author of the National Academies report, said Friday during a call sponsored by the Center for Medicare Advocacy in Washington, D.C.
Intervention with hearing aids or other devices can slow cognitive impairments and increase safety among the elderly, he said.
April Royan, owner and audiologist with Decibels Audiology and Hearing Aid Center in Naples, is keeping an eye on the bills in Congress and is familiar with the National Academies report.
She couldn’t predict if it will be a tipping point for federal policymakers to expand Medicare coverage.
“This comes up about every five years,” Royan said. “I think people are saying to Congress, ‘We want this covered.'”
It’s the first question anyone asks whether they are on private insurance or Medicare but neither covers hearing aids, she said. On the other hand, Medicaid and Veterans Affairs covers them, she said.
If Medicare starts covering hearing aids, it won’t be for $5,000 hearing aids but more like basic $1,000 devices, she said.
“That is the biggest misconception,” she said. “It won’t be the invisible hearing aids but it will do the job.”
Baby boomers are more attuned to the link between hearing loss and decline in cognitive function, depression and injury risk, she said. And it’s usually an adult child who brings in a parent for testing after an event, like a fall.
“Accidents, that is a huge part of what we do, when people come in after something happened,” Royan said.
Only one in five people with hearing loss have hearing aids, in large part because Medicare does not cover them, Judith Stein, executive director of the Medicare advocacy group. Hearing aids run $4,000 or more, she said.
Medicare coverage is overdue for hearing aids, Max Richtman, president and chief executive officer of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, said.
“Medicare covers wheel chairs, it covers diabetes strips,” he said. “Hearing loss is another debilitating condition that needs to be covered.”
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D- Mich., has introduced a bill to remove Medicare’s exclusion for hearing aids and test for them. And U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., has a bill for Medicare to cover dental, vision and hearing care, among other bills.
“When you can’t hear, you feel totally isolated,” McDermott said.
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