Boosting Hearing Aid Access, Competition Would Benefit Seniors

Boosting Hearing Aid Access, Competition Would Benefit Seniors

Millions of Americans may soon be able to hear a bit easier. The Food and Drug Administration just announced a new rule that would permit over-the-counter sales of hearing aids. Regulators are soliciting comments from the public.

This move to liberalize the market for hearing aids is an unmitigated piece of good news. It recognizes that patients should have greater control over the care they receive, and it promises to increase competition in the market for hearing aids, saving consumers money and expanding access in the process.

Half o all seniors over the age of 75 have what the National Institutes of Health classifies as “disabling hearing loss.” Younger adults can struggle with their hearing, too. The NIH says that historically around 14% of Americans ages 20-69 have some level of hearing loss.

At present, a person needs a prescription to get a hearing aid. That’s limited access to – and the potential market for – hearing aids. These supply restrictions have elevated the prices of hearing aids. Professionally fitted devices seldom cost less than $1,000, and sometimes more than $6,000 – about 17% of the U.S. median income.

For the average senior, the outlook is even more grim. The most expensive hearing aids would strip them 22% of their annual income. Then there are the additional costs associated with seeing an audiologist and attending required checkups.

It’s no wonder, then, that many people who would benefit from hearing aids go without. Nearly 60% of people over 55 who have hearing loss don’t use them, one survey found. And over three quarters of those who do have the cash for hearing aids say they’re still too expensive.

Shifting to an over-the-counter model would erase one of the chief barriers to getting a hearing aid – the need for a prescription from a doctor or audiologist. And by expanding the potential customer base for hearing aids, it could induce manufacturers to enter the space – and reduce prices for consumers.

A possible preview of what’s ahead – speaker and headphone manufacturer Bose already sells over-the-counter hearing aids. They cost $850 – much less than the thousands of dollars that prescription hearing aids can cost today.

Liberalizing the market for hearing aids is a far more efficient – and cost-effective – way to expand access to hearing care than the Democrats’ plan to provide coverage for such care through Medicare as part of their massive social spending bill currently being debated in Congress.

Scrapping regressive FDA regulations on hearing devices also opens up the possibility for even more innovation. Imagine the possibilities: wireless headphones that double as hearing aids or hearing aids that connect with a smartwatch. Imagine the opportunities for greater innovation that were previously stifled by regressive FDA regulations.

Requiring people with common forms of hearing loss to jump through hoops to procure low-risk devices that can help them is a pointless burden – and a cruel one, too.

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