What to Know About President Biden’s Statement About OTC Hearing Aids

By Julia Métraux

Hearing aids and associated health-related costs can be a major burden for hard-of-hearing people and their families. This is why members of the hearing loss community have been waiting for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of over-the-counter hearing aids, which has been in motion since December 2016.

Biden

In his first 100 days in office, Biden signed more than 60 executive actions.

On July 9, U.S. President Joe Biden’s signed an executive order—the Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy—that calls on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to “promote the wide availability of low-cost hearing aids” and “publish for notice and comment a proposed rule on over-the-counter hearing-aids” by early November. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders indicates that OTC hearing aids are “intended to help adults who believe they have mild-to-moderate hearing loss.”

Untreated hearing loss can have a major impact on people’s lives, and is connected to dementia. Dr. Rhee Rosenman-Nesson, a doctor of audiology, told HearingTracker that “untreated hearing loss is a health crisis in America, and many people who have health insurance are shocked to learn that this essential medical device is not covered.”

Will OTC help bring costs down?

In the fact-sheet that accompanied the executive order, the White House explained that Americans will save thousands of dollars by purchasing over-the-counter hearing aids. They also cited a figure that hearing aids cost on average $5,000 a pair, according to a 2019 article from Consumer Reports. Rosenman-Nesson told HearingTracker that “the reason hearing aids can cost over $5000 for a pair is because most hearing aid practices bundle or include all of their services in the cost.”

But, consumers can purchase hearing aids from audiologists for far less than $5,000. When it comes down to it, the prices for hearing aids that someone can get at an audiologist, midrange hearing aids, which tend to have more features, can range from $3,000 to $5,000 for a pair. As Tom Rains writes in ConsumerAffairs, “though the price of a hearing aid might seem steep, you can pay in monthly installments similar to those you might pay for television service or internet subscription.”

For people who want to be fitted by and receive care from an audiologist, there are avenues that they can pursue to save money. This could bring the cost of a pair of hearing aids to around two to three thousand dollars. “If you want to save money on hearing aids, another alternative is to seek out a hearing care practice that is unbundled, so you only pay for the hearing aid and services you need at the time you need them,” Rosenman-Nesson explained. Getting a proper fit is especially important for people with more profound levels of hearing loss. “In the long run, it will save you money, but you won't sacrifice getting a properly fit hearing aid.”

While the FDA has not approved over-the-counter hearing aids as of the reporting of this article, that isn’t stopping Americans from purchasing FDA-registered hearing aids over the internet. Current options include self-fitted and telehealth-supported hearing aids hearing aids. And while direct-to-consumer are often cheaper, as is the case with the new self-fitting Bose SoundControl™ hearing aids at $849.95 a pair, they can still cost thousands of dollars. For example, Eargo’s latest model runs $2,950 a pair, Lively’s “new everyday low price” is $2,000 a pair, and Audicus’ latest behind-the-ear models start at $2,798 a pair.

Prices offered by online sellers may be a bit more affordable for people living on a low or fixed income, including seniors, but consumers should be aware of the potential pitfalls. Some hearing health professionals are concerned about the quality of Eargo, Hearing Assist, Nano, and other direct-to-consumer hearing aids. “I've tested in a soundproof booth many patients who came in with over the counter hearing aids in my practice to see if they were getting any help from them, and the results were terrible,” Rosenman-Nesson told HearingTracker. “I believe that the OTC hearing aids will encourage some people to try hearing aids that otherwise wouldn't, but they may not get any actual benefit from their investment.”

Rosenman-Nesson understands why consumers may be attracted to direct-to-consumer sellers as “marketing can be very deceptive to someone who is not informed or educated about the differences between a DIY hearing aid and one that is prescribed and fit by an audiologist.” She continues, “the new hearing aid companies that are promoting a DIY option to save the user money are often looking at making money and not focused on implementing a person-centered hearing solution that a doctor of audiology can provide.”

At the same, we are seeing iterative improvements in the products being offered by online sellers. Take for example the Bose SoundControl hearing aids. Dr. Cliff, an audiology personality on YouTube, recently put SoundControl to the ultimate audiological test by fitting the hearing aids on his assistant, and measuring their performance using a test known as “real ear measurements”. After extensive testing, Dr. Cliff concludes that the SoundControl hearing aids are a legitimate option for consumers with mild hearing loss and a budget under $1000.

Remaining challenges

President Biden’s executive order does not address one major affordability issue that remains for hearing aid consumers– only a handful of 5 states require insurance companies to cover full or partial costs of hearing aids for both adults and children. “Most insurances, including Medicare, do not cover the cost of hearing aids and related services,”

Rosenman-Nesson said, “While President Biden's executive order to promote competition in the marketplace is a good strategy, it does not address why hearing aids are not covered by insurance plans.” And this is a problem for anyone who does not fit into the mild-to-moderate hearing loss category. For those who need an affordability solution the most—for children, those with severe hearing loss, and those with complex needs—the current OTC legislation does nothing to make hearing aids more accessible.

On a tight budget?

For those who are on a limited budget, and don’t want to sacrifice in-peron care, it is worth calling around to your local audiologists (or checking HearingTracker’s local discount platform) to see what budget options may be available. Depending on your state, you may also be able to find financial assistance. And if you’re a Costco member, the Kirkland Signature 10.0 hearing aids are definitely worth considering at $1,399.99 a pair.