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May 11 2017

Don’t Be Tone Deaf on Hearing Aids

by Patrice L. Onwuka

Americans who want to hear a little better may have more trouble getting over-the-counter devices if Congress moves forward on new legislation.

In March, Senator Elizabeth Warren and her colleagues introduced the Over the Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017. This would create a new category for hearing aids to be sold over the counter and give the Food and Drug Administration new power to impose rules on existing over-the-counter products. This would also bypass state laws already in place for a one-sized-fits all federal solution. The House recently introduced bipartisan companion legislation as well.

Currently, there are personal sound amplification products (PSAPs) on the market that you can buy online or at stores like Wal-Mart and Best Buy for $100-$600 – just a fraction of the cost of traditional hearing aids, which could be as much as $3,000. PSAs aren’t there to correct hearing loss, but help to amplify soft sounds. They come in handy for recreational activities like bird watching and hunting. Because they are off-the-shelf items, they are not customized to a person’s ear.

Conversely, hearing aids are highly customizable – based on ear shape, degree of hearing loss, and molding of the hearing canal – and must be prescribed and fitted by a licensed professional.

Americans like PSAs and there’s a growing demand for these products. As the Wall Street Journal reported a few years ago, entrepreneurs are creating new PSAs to fill the growing demand. To be clear, these aids should not replace hearing aids if a person needs one.

These bills sounds like a good idea until you understand what they do. They would:

  • Introduce new federal regulations on devices to treat them as hearing aids when they are not
  • Removes the right for states to create their own rules governing PSAs
  • Decrease access to affordable options for those who need it such as veterans and the elderly receiving Medicare
  • Allow hearing aids to be sold without a doctors permission – potentially leading to poorer health outcomes

The last point is especially important. By making hearing aids available over-the-counter and without doctor’s approval, customers could forego professional medical help. In anecdotes from a recent survey, we see that the results could be damaging:

I have seen patients come into my clinic with hearing tests provided by retailers at “big box stores” who should have referred for ENT management and did not. These patients were misdiagnosed (hearing loss was exaggerated to make them hearing aid candidates) and red-flags for medical management were ignored. In one case, patient had a tumor on his auditory nerve. Had these patients not come into my clinic for a second opinion, this dangerous management of their care could have escalated into serious health problems. Patients should seek care from a qualified healthcare professional (audiologists) when discussing amplification to ensure they are treated ethically and appropriately.

Independent Women’s Forum signed onto a coalition letter in opposition to the Senate bill.  Ensuring Americans continue to have access to choice in auditory devices is key, but these bills are not the best way to achieve that.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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