Hearing loss is a serious medical and quality-of-life-altering condition. If untreated, it worsens — gradually, like the ocean waves eroding the sand dunes. It impacts your relationships, and can lead to isolation, depression and other serious medical issues. Yet, hearing aids can address over 90% of hearing losses when correctly prescribed and accurately programmed. In North Carolina, hearing loss affects more than individuals—it is a public health concern. Nearly 250,000 Triangle residents are hearing impaired, but only 20% who would benefit from wearing a hearing aid actually do so. Improving access to and affordability of hearing health care means finding solutions that span society. So why doesn’t Medicare pay?
Medicare considers hearing aids an elective, in spite of the multitude of clinical studies that confirm hearing loss is connected to a number of long-term health issues. Even more significant, there is an abundance of recent clinical research from Johns Hopkins University which shows a person with hearing loss is up to five times more likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s, dementia or another form of cognitive impairment. One in five Americans suffers from untreated hearing loss. As a result, dementia is on the cusp of hitting our country in epidemic numbers.
In addition, a new study conducted at the Medical University of South Carolina confirms those with hearing loss suffer yet another cost: higher medical bills. According to Healthy Hearing, the costs of healthcare were higher for those with treated hearing loss than for those without any hearing loss at all, but those who spent the most on healthcare were those with untreated hearing loss. Even taking into account adjustments to the data for those who received hearing treatment such as hearing aids, those being treated for hearing loss still paid significantly less for healthcare than those who had hearing loss but did not receive hearing treatment.
To date, Medicare and private insurance companies haven’t offered coverage of hearing aids up to now because of “cost containment.” The leaders of those organizations, if they don’t already know, must be educated of the severity of the risk of dementia with hearing loss, as well as other serious medical conditions. We should then ask those insurance leaders this question: Would they rather cover all the incredibly expensive health care costs of an Alzheimer’s’ patient in the last six months of their lives, or would they rather cover the relatively low costs of hearing aids and professional care earlier in their lives as a preventive measure? It should take them about five seconds to make that decision!
There is an increasingly urgent need for our society to be fully aware of all of the policies, health and economic issues surrounding hearing loss. Hopefully, increased coverage of all the related issues will prompt people to contact their elected representatives and express their opinions. That is the only way to influence changes in policy.
Hearing loss truly affects more than individuals—it is a public health concern, here in Raleigh, and across the nation. We all must do our part to educate our families and friends about the severe health risks of not treating hearing loss. When more people fully understand the consequences, the access to and affordability of hearing health care will improve.