My Turn: Seniors have waited for a meaningful hearing aid benefit 

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Published: 9/16/2021 3:59:01 PM

Hearing is a vital part of our lives and an intrinsic part of how we communicate and experience the world. We may not spend a lot of time actively thinking about our hearing, but once a person begins to experience hearing loss, the impacts are serious. In fact, according to a study from the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, when compared to people with normal hearing, people aged 70 and older with hearing loss are:

■ 32% more likely to have been admitted to a hospital;

■ 36% more likely to have prolonged stretches of illness or injury;

■ 57% more likely to have deep episodes of stress or depression.

Additionally, research by Johns Hopkins and the National Institute on Aging found that older Americans with hearing loss are significantly more likely to develop dementia over time than those without hearing difficulties.

Given the significant impact that hearing loss can have on both an individual and their loved ones, it is puzzling to consider that at its inception in 1965, Medicare did not address this important health care need when it failed to cover hearing aids. As a result, generations of seniors and others suffering from hearing loss have had to pay out of pocket for health care that provides undeniable benefits. Fortunately, policymakers in Washington, DC, including U.S. Representative Richard Neal, now have an opportunity to correct this oversight and make a major difference in the lives of Massachusetts senior citizens.

The U.S. Congress and the Biden Administration are currently considering legislation that would expand the Medicare health insurance program to include hearing aid coverage. This long-overdue change, included as part of the $3.5 trillion federal budget proposal, would modernize Medicare by recognizing hearing aids as an essential part of Americans’ health and well-being.

We thank Congressman Neal for his leadership in this area and encourage him and his colleagues on both sides of the aisle to not only advance this important change, but to do so in a way that will actually benefit Massachusetts’ seniors. If Medicare is expanded to include hearing aids, Massachusetts Medicare enrollees must be able to access all providers of care including hearing aid specialists. If these lawmakers’ goal is to truly provide a hearing aid benefit under Medicare, the benefit is only meaningful if seniors can use it.

Hearing aid specialists — known as hearing instrument specialists in Massachusetts — serve as trusted and qualified providers of hearing healthcare and provide half of all hearing aids to the general public, including the elderly population. Here in Massachusetts, more than 200 hearing aid specialists provide care to their community, not only in their main practice locations, but also in assistive living communities and nursing homes, as well as during home visits.

My colleagues and I love what we do because on a daily basis, we are able to improve both seniors’ health as well as the quality of their lives. Since hearing aid specialists comprise about half of hearing aid providers nationally, if an expanded Medicare program were to exclude hearing aid specialists and rely solely on audiologists, seniors seeking Medicare-covered hearing examinations, hearing aids, and related care would see existing points of access drop by 50%.

Failing to include hearing aid specialists as Medicare providers means that seniors in Massachusetts will face long wait times for appointments and long distance travel to get the care they need, and may opt to go without, thereby compromising not only their quality of life, but also their safety and health.

For thousands of Massachusetts seniors, professionally fit hearing aids offer vital health and safety benefits. Importantly, they also offer the freedom to communicate with dignity, and to clearly engage with their loved ones and the world around them. For more than 50 years, Massachusetts seniors have waited for a meaningful hearing aid benefit that is affordable, effective, and easy to access. With the support of Congressman Neal and his colleagues in the U.S. House and Senate, the long wait may soon be over.

Doriana Vicedomini, is the president of the Massachusetts Hearing Aid Society and owner of Earmasters, with practices in Feeding Hills, Pittsfield, Auburn and Greenfield.

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