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Hearing aids can greatly improve someone’s quality of life, including seniors who want to stay active and engaged but may have diminished hearing. But overcoming stigma and also figuring out how to pay for hearing aids can be a true struggle.
It’s not a new struggle, either. In 1983 a report by The New York Times created waves when the then-president, Ronald Reagan, was rumored to have acquired a hearing aid. While this may sound odd to us now to be considered much of a news story, at the time the use of hearing aids was stigmatized more so even than it is today. While over thirty percent or nearly one in three Americans sixty years or older had reduced hearing, just twenty percent of Americans were actually using hearing aids.
At the time, many applauded the report as a way to normalize hearing aid use and encourage greater access. However, facing a re-election campaign, Reagan supporters fretted that the report would emphasize Reagan’s age and make him seem too elderly and ‘feeble’ to be elected to another term.
Though that was decades ago, the problem of hearing aids and stigma persists. While hearing aids can be a wonderful tool to improve quality of life and encourage independence, there’s still a sizeable gap between how many Americans have hearing aids and how many could benefit from them.
An estimated forty million Americans suffer from diminished hearing that could be addressed with hearing aid devices, yet a mere quarter of those Americans actually use hearing aids. Part of that is due to the fact that there is still a degree a stigma–but merely attributing this discency to stigma would be a misrepresentation of the situation.
In fact, it is not only stigma but also the cost of hearing aids that prove prohibitive to so many. This article will help you figure out how to pay for hearing aids for you or a loved one, so you can live your best life without allowing hearing loss to impede.
How do I know if I or a loved one needs hearing aids?
Hearing loss can be subtle, and it is also often gradual. It may be less obvious than you might think that you need hearing aids. However, according to Healthy Hearing, a digital health publication dedicated to providing resources for hearing loss, there are several easy signs you or a loved one might benefit from a hearing aid:
- Phones calls are hard to hear. Not being able to hear someone on the phone can happen to all of from time to time, whether that’s due to poor reception, low voices, or even background noises. But consistently struggling to hear or distinguish voices, especially when it’s in a variety of different settings and even if you’ve tried different phones, is a sign of hearing loss that could be helped by using hearing aids.
- Trouble listening to multiple speakers. Let’s face it–many of us tend to talk over each other and sometimes, especially in a crowded room, conversations can be challenging for us all to follow. But consistently having difficulty following conversations or distinguishing different voices and different speakers may signal hearing loss.
- TV is always turned up. Anyone finding themselves reaching for the remote to turn to TV up to hear, or especially if it’s too loud for others, may benefit from using a hearing aid.
- Feeling worn out after listening to conversations. Ideally, listening to and engaging in conversations should be fairly low stress, but if someone has to constantly strain to hear, then it can be exhausting over the course of a day.
- Aversion to noisy places. Of course, many of us don’t like working in noisy locations. The problem arises when someone feels like they cannot interact or properly engage in noisy locations because it’s too difficult to understand what others are saying. The most common problem is not being able to tune out background noises to focus on specific speakers.
- Asking for clarification constantly. Again, all of us mishear words occasionally, and that’s often due to divided attention or inattention. But asking for clarification more often than others might also indicate a notable hearing loss.
- Feeling people mumble often. While it’s true that all of us don’t speak as clearly as we should sometimes, a sign of hearing loss is feeling that people consistently mumble in a variety of situations.
- Misunderstanding what others are saying on a regular basis. While it’s only human to misunderstand phrases from time to time, misunderstanding and mixing up certain sounds is another sign of hearing loss.
- Not being able to hear certain sounds. As we age, we are less able to hear certain sounds. In particular, high pitched sounds may commonly be audible only to those of teenage or young adult years and below. However, not being able to hear sounds in normal decibel ratings may indicate more than normal aging changes.
Why do most people not use hearing aids?
For those who choose not to use hearing aids, there are a few reasons. One reason is awareness: without going in and getting hearing properly tested by a professional, some way brush off not hearing sounds and people as well, chalking it up to certain situations, sounds, or just normal aging.
Another reason is the stigma. Though stigma has decreased, it is a problem for anyone who feels that hearing aids more openly expresses their age.
Finally, many opt not to get hearing aids or delay the process simply because it can be rather expensive, enough so that it might feel prohibitive for anyone living on a fixed income.
Has stigma associated with hearing aids improved, and is there a way around it?
Stigma and hearing aids remain, in fact, documented problems. Studies have shown that the very perception of stigma has a negative impact on one’s experience with hearing aids and create an aversion to getting a device that may help them in everyday life. One study, in particular, found that stigma is related to:
- Self-perception–feeling that one is lesser or weak if they admit to hearing loss or have to use a hearing aid
- Ageism–the cultural perception of aging being equated to losses, rather than the positive things that can come with aging
- Vanity–or perhaps more aptly put, the need to feel confident about oneself and to not showcase what some may perceive as a weakness
Being aware of these contributing factors is the first step to reducing the stigma associated with hearing loss. The next step is to start understanding the logical and emotional fallacies behind those reasons. For one, getting older does not mean you are less valuable to society. For another, using a device is a form of self-care, which is quite the opposite of being weak. Finally, though we all want to feel we do not need much help, everyone does from time to time, and hearing aids actually help retain more independence long term.
On a vanity level, the other good news is that hearing aids are not nearly as obtrusive or cumbersome as they once were. You can invest in smaller devices, devices that mostly go inside the ear, and devices with clear attachments–in other words, there are countless varieties of hearing aids that are meant to blend in more seamlessly and be far less noticeable.
How expensive are hearing aids?
Hearing aids range a bit in price, depending on what features you opt for, but the cost in of itself is rather daunting if you’re on a fixed income. Most hearing aid devices range from fifteen hundred to well over three thousand dollars, with the average price hovering a bit over two thousand dollars.
And that is only per unit. In other words, if you had to have hearing aids equipped for both ears, your average initial price could be around four thousand dollars.
In fact, that average price continues to climb and doubled from 1997 to 2008.
Why do hearing aids cost so much?
There’s little doubt that the cost of hearing aids can be a burden to many seniors. So why do hearing aids cost that much? The answer is slightly complex and with many variables. Emerging and increasingly complex technology leads to a better experience for the most part, but such innovation also often brings inflation of prices for devices, much in the same way the influx of smartphones now means that there are a dearth os phones that cost much under a hundred or hundred and fifty dollars.
Here are some other reasons why hearing aids cost so much:
- Research: Money is invested continuously to new ways to research and develop devices like hearing aids to make them more innovative, user-friendly, and technologically advanced, addressed hearing problems to degrees that were not previously possible. Though this results in more powerful and less noticeable hearing aids, it also tends to increase the prices.
- Lack of competition. There actually isn’t that much in terms of competition; hearing aids are still considered a relatively small market, which means that there may be fewer options. Only about two million hearing aids are sold per year in the United States, which drives prices up without room to demand lower prices.
- Professional services. Most hearing aids, before being purchased, require at least some degree of professional consultation. While some places allow for free exams, overall the involvement of other professional increase the cost of hearing aids.
- Other factors include the ability to customize, which of course always drives prices up, and some argue that most companies offering warranties and generous return policies actually are built into the price you initially pay.
What are some ways I can reduce the cost of hearing aids?
Reducing the cost of hearing aids may not be easy, but one of the ways to find out how to pay more easily for hearing aids is to first reduce the cost.
While not all of these methods may be applicable for all hearing aid candidates (which we will explain) there are a number of steps you can take to cut that initial cost. One issue is that a big portion of the cost isn’t even just the hearing aids themselves, but all of the costs associated with it, which include initial assessments, check-ups, and adjustments you’ll need.
- Check for health insurance coverage. Sadly, in many cases, health insurance does not cover any portion of hearing aid costs. In fact, just under half– twenty-two out of fifty states–have laws requiring insurance to cover hearing aids. The image above shows what states require insurance coverage for hearing aids, as provided by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. The dark blue indicates coverage is required for both children and adults; the light blue means that the state requires coverage for adults, and gray, of course, means there are no such requirements.
- That doesn’t mean it will be fully covered in those states, nor does it mean you definitely are not covered if you live outside those ‘blue’ states.
- From there it gets more complicated. Many seniors are covered by public health insurance, which includes Medicare and Medicaid. With government insurance, you may get some coverage, but it will be fairly limited. The most common type of coverage will be for appointments and assessments and hearing tests. It’s possible there may be a small amount paid towards healthcare aids, and equally possible it will not. Coverage varies state by state, so always make sure to check your coverage.
- Medicare does not cover the cost of hearing aids themselves. The loophole is if you see a specialist referred to you by your PCP; then your hearing test may be covered. Other options sometimes are available if you have a more comprehensive Medicare Advantage Plan.
- Private health insurance plans vary, as you might imagine. As always, the best policy is to ask and understand your benefits. It’s also possible you’ll get coverage for certain services and providers over others.
- Are there alternative forms of coverage for hearing aids and hearing aid related costs? Yes, it is possible you can get some coverage for costs outside of private and the two most common public options. Non-profit organizations, Worker’s Unions, the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program, and the Department of Veterans Affairs all offer limited coverage, which varies by the circumstances. Bottom Line: Check your benefits. It’s possible there won’t be much, but if there is, you want to take advantage of them.
- Discuss it with your audiologist. If you’re hesitant to see a specialist, consider this: in many cases, you need someone to suggest the correct hearing aid for you, but not only that–seeing a specialist might help you find a more affordable hearing aid. Most audiologists will work with you to find hearing aids within your price point.
- Consider a wholesale store like Costco. You have been hesitant, but more and more seniors and anyone you need hearing aids for that matter are opting to buy hearing aids at stores like Costco. Prices tend to be a bit lower because a place like Costco offers both its own brand and buys wholesale from larger manufacturers.
- Check about warranty and return policies. Checking for warranty and return policies will help you make sure that, if you do buy hearing aids you aren’t pleased with, you’ll have some insurance against what you spent.
- Find ways to reduce the price of consultation–by going online. The fact of the matter is that the best way to reduce your overall costs is to target first the actual consultation. One way to be able to find a way to pay for hearing aids is to cut those initial fees, which can account for up to two-thirds of your total costs! If you go onto manufacturer’s sites, you can sometimes even oft for consultation at through that manufacturer, then have it taken for a professional. Taking steps like this means you can slash the cost to under one thousand dollars for your hearing aids, and possibly as low as several hundred. The Hearing Industries Association is a great resource for finding products and providers.
- Opt for a personal sound application product. While a personal sound application product is not the same as a hearing aid (these are not approved or regulated by the FDA), they can be a more affordable option that offers some of the benefits of a hearing aid; on average these types of devices run two to three hundred dollars. While these cannot help with issues such as hearing distortion, they can help with basic hearing issues and may be suitable for mild hearing loss.
- See if you can apply for government assistance. At certain incomes, depending on where you live, you might qualify for government assistance to help you pay for your hearing aids. Experts recommend you start by contacting the Hearing Loss Association or by contacting your state.
- Buy hearing aids through nonprofits that offer discounted products. HuffPost lists four leading organizations that offer hearing aids at greatly reduced costs, which include:
- Sertoma: This nonprofit organization runs of a recycling program, reusing and repurposing hearing aid devices and parts. With an impressive five hundred chapters nationwide, chances are you’ll be able to find at least one or a few near you.
- Audient: Audient, as a nonprofit organization, instead helps provide financial assistance towards the cost of hearing aids, providing lower cost hearing aids that run five hundred to one thousand dollars per unit. You must be under a certain income level in order to qualify.
- Lions Club: Lions Club, more formerly known as the Lions Affordable Hearing Aid Project, is available for households at two hundred percent or below the poverty level. You can purchase new hearing aids made by Rexon for a few hundred per unit. Not all Lions Clubs around the nation offer this program, so you’ll have to check with your local chapter.
- Starkey Hearing Foundation: This nonprofit organization offers a program called Hear Now which requires you to pay a hearing aid test and application fee for a bit over one hundred dollars per hearing aid, but provides the actual hearing aids for free. You must be under certain incomes levels to apply.
- Finally, compare your options. It’s important to consult with a professional and understand what features you need. Chances are, there are models that can save you money and still provide the assistance you need.