Accessing hearing care services can be difficult, but it can be almost impossible for older people with lower incomes

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February 20, 2019

Accessing hearing care services can be difficult, but it can be almost impossible for older people with lower incomes

hearing loss in old age

Many people experience hearing loss as they grow older, and proper hearing care services and treatment are essential to maintaining and improving these people’s quality of life. However, studies indicate that older people have difficulty accessing hearing care services. Access to hearing care services is even more difficult for older people with low incomes.

In the United States, over two-thirds of adults over the age of 70 experience hearing loss. Untreated hearing loss can contribute to other problems, including dementia, depression, and increased risk of falls. These risks can be lowered with proper hearing care, yet studies show that many older people do not receive professional hearing care they need. Even those who have hearing aids do not necessarily have access to regular hearing services.

According to a study conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, a high proportion of older people with hearing aids report having difficulty hearing with their devices. They also report difficulties in accessing hearing care services. The numbers are even higher among older people with low incomes.

The study surveyed 1,133 Medicare participants. Of the low-income Medicare beneficiaries who were dually eligible for Medicaid, 27 percent of those surveyed reported having a lot of difficulty hearing with their hearing aid. In contrast, just 11 percent of respondents in the highest income bracket reported having a lot of difficulty hearing with a device. Out of all study participants, only 39 percent reported using professional hearing care services in the previous year. Of hearing aid users in the lowest income category, 71 percent had not received hearing care services in the prior year.

Some of the difficulty in accessing hearing care may stem from the fact that audiology services and hearing devices are specifically excluded from Medicare coverage. Medicaid offers limited coverage for low-income elderly individuals with hearing loss, but coverage and services are not comprehensive.

In addition to the cost of the hearing aid itself—which runs at an average of more than $2,000 per unit—individuals also need to pay for the services of an audiologist or other licensed hearing aid dispenser. Currently, these are the only providers permitted to sell hearing aids. Accessing professional hearing services and paying for the device as well may prove prohibitive for many older people, especially those with low incomes.

Starting in 2020, people will be able to purchase hearing aids over-the-counter, directly from FDA-approved manufacturers. Researchers expect this to make hearing aids more affordable, but this change will not affect the difficulties many older adults face in accessing professional hearing care. Services from an audiologist or other licensed professional are typically needed to ensure that the hearing aid works at an optimal level, is properly fitted, and is routinely adjusted to accommodate the user’s needs.

A change to Medicare service exclusions would ensure greater access to hearing care services for older adults. By removing the hearing care exclusions, more elderly people would be able to easily access and afford professional hearing services.

If you believe you may be experiencing hearing loss, or if you think your hearing aid is not working properly, please contact your hearing practice today. We are happy to help you receive the care you need.

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