By Lauren McGrath
Our aging population’s lack of access to hearing loss treatment is a public health crisis. More than half of Americans 60 and older live with hearing loss. When left untreated, hearing loss can increase the risk of cognitive decline, social isolation, falls, and dementia. Unaddressed hearing loss is also connected to higher rates of unemployment, longer hospital stays, and premature mortality.
On May 29, 2019, Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) and 11 other Friends of the Congressional Hearing Health Caucus (FCHHC) member organizations co-sponsored a briefing luncheon on the economics of hearing health care for Congressional staff and other Federal employees at the Rayburn Office House Building on Capitol Hill.
As both a leader in hearing loss research and a founding member of the FCHHC, the coalition that supports the policy interests of the Congressional Hearing Health Caucus (CHHC), HHF is committed to increasing adoption of hearing loss treatment. The CHHC, a U.S. House of Representatives caucus* co-chaired by Reps. David McKinley (R-WV) and Mike Thompson (D-CA), aims to raise awareness of issues that affect Americans with hearing loss, and has previously been influential in the passage and preservation of universal newborn hearing screening legislation. Each year, the FCHHC organizes a briefing for Congressional staffers on an important topic in hearing health.
The year’s meeting, entitled “Understanding the Cost of Not Treating Hearing Loss in Adults,” featured two expert speakers, Richard K. Gurgel, M.D., clinician and Associate Professor of Otolaryngology at University of Utah School of Medicine, and Ian Windmill, Ph.D., Clinical Director of the Division of Audiology at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.
Gurgel and Windmill spoke about the prevalence of hearing loss and its impact, noting that by 2060, this sensory deficit — the most common among seniors — will impact more than 73 million adults, with the overwhelming majority financially unable to pursue treatment. According to the NIDCD, about 70% of adults ages 70 and older who could benefit from hearing aids have used the devices.
Cost is the largest barrier to purchasing hearing aids, the primary treatment for hearing loss, among adults in the U.S. A 2017 Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) and Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) survey found that the cost of hearing aids exceed the next most commonly cited limitation — uncertainty about where to get hearing tested — by 575 percent.
Both Gurgel and Windmill cited the implications of paper entitled “Cost-Benefit Analysis of Hearing Care Services: What Is It Worth to Medicare?”, published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society in April 2019. The paper’s authors determined that the average annual spending of Medicare beneficiaries who use hearing care services is $8,196, which the spending of those who do not use hearing care services is $10,709, an annual difference of $2,513 per recipient. This difference amounts to a cost savings of more than $7 billion to Medicare annually.
Windmill also cited a report showing that worker’s compensation costs related to hearing loss for a single year in Kentucky averaged $14,500 per person and amounted to a total of $14.5 million statewide. From this report, we can estimate at least $725 million in worker’s compensation payments related to hearing loss are made each year.
While the Congressional luncheon attendees were enthusiastic, and the economic case for Medicare coverage of hearing aids is compelling, more advocacy work is needed to maximize the number of older adults treating hearing loss. HHF encourages you to take action by inviting your local representatives to join the CHHC and to garner support for relevant existing bills: Medical Hearing Aid Coverage Act of 2019 (H.R. 1518), Medicare Dental, Vision, and Hearing Benefit Act of 2019 (S. 1423 / H.R. 1393), and the Seniors Have Eyes, Ears, and Teeth Act (H.R. 576).
You can learn more about the FCHHC and review the presenters’ slides via the American Cochlear Implant Alliance.
*Current members of the CHHC, as of June 2019:
Gus Bilirakis (R-FL)
Andre Carson (D-IN)
Kevin Cramer (R-ND)
Rosa DeLauro (D-CT)
Eliot Engel (D-NY)
Bob Goodlatte (R-VA)
Peter King (R-NY)
Dave Loebsack (D-IA)
Betty McCollum (D-MN)
Richard Neal (D-MA)
Frank Pallone (D-NJ)
David Roe (R-TN)
Adam Schiff (D-CA)
Adam Smith (D-WA)