healthcare — July 27, 2015 at 6:42 pm

Congresswoman Debbie Dingell champions Medicare coverage for hearing aids


Less than 30 percent of older adults who need hearing aids actually get them. Rep. Dingell is determined to change that.

This week, let’s do more than celebrate 50 years of Medicare, one of the most successful social programs in this country’s history. Let’s also talk about how we can improve Medicare over the next 50 years.

That’s the message from Michigan Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, who is a staunch supporter of improved healthcare access, research and prevention. Right now, she’s raising awareness of the need to have hearing aids covered by Medicare.

The legislation to make this happen already exists, because it was the first bill Rep. Dingell introduced as a member of Congress back in March. The Medicare Hearing Aid Coverage Act of 2015 would allow Medicare to provide coverage for hearing aids.

The average price of a pair of hearing aids ranges between $4,400 and $4,500 — up to as much as $7,000 — a price too steep for many, especially those on a fixed income.

I didn’t know Medicare doesn’t cover hearing aids until a few months ago, when my favorite aunt told me what a hole buying them had put in her savings. Rep. Dingell found out through a personal connection, too, she told me.

I happened to be at the doctor, working on an unrelated insurance issue, and the doctor mentioned that Medicare doesn’t cover hearing aids for anybody. I was very surprised. I asked my doctor how many people she sees a day who need hearing aids but don’t get one, and she told me more than half.

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) confirms that the figure is even higher. According to NCPSSM, more than 70 percent of people between the age of 65 and 84 who need hearing aids don’t get them. Cost isn’t the only factor, but it’s a big one.

Earlier this month, Rep. Dingell, Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, NCPSSM and more than 50 seniors and advocates gathered in Washington to call for expanded coverage for hearing loss treatments. When people who need hearing aids don’t get them, the consequences can be serious, Rep. Dingell explained.

[It] leads to isolation, depression and some studies have documented early dementia. No one should feel isolated, confused or shut out from the world because they can’t afford the treatment they need. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The reality is that while Medicare provides critical health coverage to millions of beneficiaries there are very serious gaps which exist.

Rep. Dingell is determined to close this gap, which she sees as both a quality of life issue and a preventive care issue — not to mention a move that could save both seniors and Medicare money.

“People need to think about what it means to someone who can’t hear, how isolated and cut off from the community they feel, and how a hearing aid lets them be a contributing, engaged member of the community,” she says.

It’s a safety issue, too, Rep. Dingell adds. People with hearing impairment might not hear a smoke detector or be able to have a conversation with a 911 operator in an emergency, for example.

Hearing loss is the third most prevalent chronic condition in the United States, affecting nearly 48 million Americans. Left untreated, it has serious emotional, social and medical consequences. Research has shown older adults with hearing loss are 32 percent more likely to require hospitalization, face a 24 percent increased risk for cognitive impairment, which includes dementia, and increasingly suffer from isolation and depression. Making sure people who need hearing aids can afford them is a preventive measure.

“We are beginning to understand now that there are direct biological pathways through which age-related hearing loss, which all of us will experience to some degree, directly contributes to even more serious critical outcomes which are incredibly expensive. Hearing loss reaches far beyond quality of life issues,” says Dr. Frank Lin, M.D., Ph.D., Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Bloomberg School of Public Health.

In other words, preventing the known risks of hearing impairment in older adults could reduce the need for many healthcare services — and that lowers costs. “It’s really an example of the fact that if you invest early, you could save money longer term,” Rep. Dingell says.

“Allowing Medicare to cover the cost of hearing aids would not only improve the health and independence of millions of seniors, it makes good economic and policy sense by potentially preventing the costly effects of hearing loss through increased hospitalizations, cases of depression and cognitive decline,” says Max Richtman, President/CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

If you’re interested in more details on the health and economic case for expanding Medicare coverage to include hearing aids, NCPSSM has released a very informative issue brief.

But the bottom line is this: Older adults with hearing loss can avoid many related health issues as they age, including falling, cognitive decline, dementia, and the often resulting loss of independence. As Americans are living longer, it’s important to make sure they have the assistance they need to live well. After all, a lot has changed in the 50 years since Medicare was introduced.

That’s why Rep. Dingell and her fellow advocates are working to raise awareness of this issue and build grassroots support for getting the legislation passed into law. Rep. Dingell urges everyone to help educate others — including their legislators — on the importance of allowing Medicare to cover hearing aids.

Every day, 10,000 Americans turn 65. We need to make sure our seniors have a really good quality of life.

Health is central to quality of life, which is why I’ve been passionate about it since college. It’s something I’ve always worked on. I feel a responsibility to be heard and use my voice to help others. This week, in particular, it’s time to say we need to make sure the seniors in our country have what they need.

[Photo credit: Anne Savage Photography.]