Will 2020 Be the Year Medicare Starts Covering Hearing Aids?

Medicare Hearing Aid Act of 2019 Takes a Step Forward in the House

Anyone who has spent thousands of dollars on hearing aids can tell you that private health insurance rarely covers much—or any—of the cost. And how much of the cost do you think Medicare insurance will cover when you turn 65 years old?

You guessed it: zip, zero, nada.

Two members of the U.S. House of Representatives have set out to change that distressing fact of life for millions of seniors living with untreated hearing loss. This past week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed the Medicare Hearing Act of 2019 (H.R. 4618). Sponsored by Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Georgia) and Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Michigan), it amends the Social Security Act to provide insurance coverage for hearing aids and hearing health services under Part B of the Medicare program.

It’s only the first step in a long legislative process, and there are some notable coverage limitations, but it’s a promising start. And with 10,000 Baby Boomers turning 65 every day, it comes at a time when lawmakers are increasingly aware of the growing problem of hearing loss in the U.S. population.

Preventing devastating medical consequences of hearing loss

“Far too many people go without hearing aids because they are too expensive,” Rep. McBath said in a news release. Rep. Dingell added that the coverage is necessary because hearing loss “can lead to a sense of isolation and other negative health impacts.”

The two representatives drew on groundbreaking research developed by Frank R. Lin, M.D., Ph.D, and others at Johns Hopkins University to make their case that Medicare coverage for hearing aids can help prevent devastating medical consequences of hearing loss:

  • Hearing loss affects nearly 48 million Americans and, left untreated, “has serious emotional, social and medical consequences for older adults.”
  • Older adults with hearing loss are 32% more likely to require hospitalization, face a 24% increased risk for cognitive impairment, and increasingly suffer from isolation and depression.
  • A 10-year longitudinal Johns Hopkins study found that patients with hearing loss had a higher probability of developing dementia, with the probability rising as the severity of hearing loss increased.

Seniors fitted with hearing aids, on the other hand, show lower rates of social isolation and other ill effects of hearing loss. A 2019 study at the University of Michigan found that older adults fitted with hearing aids have a lower risk of being diagnosed with dementia, depression or anxiety, and a lower risk of suffering fall-related injuries, than those who leave their hearing loss uncorrected.

Momentum builds for a legislative solution

Representatives McBath and Dingell aren’t the only legislators addressing the hearing loss problem. In the U.S. Senate, Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), are another political duo promoting hearing assistance. Their Medicare Audiologist Access and Services Act of 2019 ensures seniors and people with disabilities on Medicare have access to a full range of hearing and balance health care services provided by licensed audiologists.

Among other things, it eliminates the requirement that patients get a referral from an MD before accessing audiology services. Rep. Tom Rice (R-S.C.) introduced identical companion legislation in the House of Representatives.

“Seniors who suffer from hearing conditions shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to see their preferred audiologist,” said Rice. “The Medicare Audiologist Access and Services Act cuts through the red tape to help Medicare patients access quality, affordable care. I will continue to reach across the aisle to find straightforward solutions to health care problems.”

In the meantime, the FDA is currently writing rules to implement the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act, which will enable manufacturers of hearing aids to sell lower-cost hearing aids directly to consumers. Warren sponsored that bill along with Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa.

A promising start on a long road to passage of legislation

The Medicare Hearing Aid Act has a long road ahead of it before it becomes law. It still requires a vote by the entire House of Representatives. Then the U.S. Senate will have to consider and pass the same legislation. And finally, the president will have to sign the new law.

However, the Act is already off to a strong start, having passed an important initial milestone with the successful committee vote. And it’s worth keeping in mind that the House Energy and Commerce Committee, established in 1795, just happens to be the oldest continuous standing committee in the House of Representatives. And it also has the broadest jurisdiction of any authorizing committee in Congress. When it speaks up on a bill, the rest of Congress listens.

Coverage limitations

The Medicare Hearing Act of 2019 includes the following limitations for coverage:

  • Medicare will only pay for one pair of hearing aids every five years
  • Coverage will only be provided to those with severe-to-profound hearing loss
  • Over-the-counter hearing aids are not covered
  • A written order from a doctor or qualified audiologist will be required

Update: An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified Rep. Debbie Dingell as a Republican. Coverage limitations added in a revision.