I’m technically disabled — but not mentally disabled the way some of my foes on CNN seem to believe. No, my disability is hearing loss (in one ear I’m nearly deaf).
I have to turn the TV up so loud the neighbors say they can hear it in the house next door. My friends complain that watching TV with me is like watching the Saturday Night Live version of Garrett Morris shouting into the camera to provide news for the hard of hearing.
There are some 30 million Americans like me suffering from severe to moderate hearing loss. Not being able to hear precisely what people are saying is an occupational handicap for sure.
I also lose my prescription hearing aid at least 3 or 4 times a year. These little gizmos are expensive, costing as much as $3,000 (I can’t get insurance anymore because of my pre-existing condition of carelessness), and so having access to cheaper over-the-counter hearing devices is an attractive option.
Granted, the non-prescription aids don’t work as well, but in a pinch they sure work a lot better than no hearing aid at all. Some of the devices at Walmart are so cheap, they are practically disposable.
Congress will soon vote on a bill called the OTC Hearing Aid Act that would allow much easier access to over the counter hearing aids. And get this. The bill is bipartisan, sponsored by Senators Grassley (R-IA) and Warren (D-MA) and Representatives Blackburn (R-TN) and Kennedy (D-MA). (This may be the first and last time I’ve ever been on the side of Elizabeth Warren!).
Here’s why this bill is important to the health and well-being of millions of Americans like me. According to the NASEM report, Hearing Health Care for Adults, more than two-thirds of the 30 million people in the U.S. with hearing loss may benefit from hearing aids but do not use them.
Why don’t they? Too expensive. A 2014 report by the CTA finds that the high price for prescription aids are a major barrier to consumers. Prescription hearing aids typically cost $1,000 to $6,000, or about10 times more than the cost of OTC aids — typically, $100 to $500.
Current law prohibits over the counter PSAPS (personal sound amplification performance systems) from making any claim to treat hearing loss. The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates hearing aids, places prohibitions on advertising for these cheaper devices, because the regulators say they don’t significantly improve hearing. I can personally attest that PSAPs do help, especially when standing in a crowded room with a lot of ambient noise or talking on the phone.
Under the new law PSAPS could be marketed and sold as a more affordable hearing aid alternative to people with hearing loss. The highest quality prescription hearing aids that are personalized and fitted for each patient and superior in quality would still be available and regulated by the FDA.
This would seem to be a no-brainer. It would drive down prices for all hearing devices by increasing choice and competition. The opponents to the bill are the doctors and the manufacturers of the expensive aids are against competition — of course. It’s the same rent seeking lobbying that taxicab companies use to keep Uber out of cities.
What we have here is a classic case of regulation that is promoted by the industry that is regulated in order to keep prices high and keep out cheaper alternatives — all under the phony guise of “consumer protection.”
We now have over the counter reading glasses and over the counter painkillers and over the counter flu medicines. These options don’t prevent people from getting prescriptions for the heavier drug dosage or more personalized contacts and eye glasses. Thanks to the Internet, consumers are much smarter and cost-conscious about what their range of choices are than 20 years ago.
One worry is that this new law will give the FDA new powers to regulate OTC devices. Conservatives should be arguing that there is no compelling reason for the FDA to be regulating this industry at all. You’re not going to die if you get snookered and buy a bad hearing aid.
This should be the first step in a conservative pro-consumer crusade to severely limit FDA regulations on the sale of scores of medical devices and drugs — where there is no issue of endangerment. Why does the FDA have to regulate hearing aids, dental and skin care products, Viagra, wheel chairs, and so on?
Everyone in Washington in both parties keeps saying they are for “affordable care.” Here’s one way they can make that a reality for tens of millions of Americans. Is anyone listening?