OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

Turning Up the Volume on Over-the-Counter Hearing Aids

Walking the aisles of your local pharmacy, it can be easy to overlook the amount of innovation tucked into those unassuming shelves. For those with high blood pressure, there is a monitor readily available. For those with severe back pain, there is an orthopedic wrap easily accessible. For those losing their eyesight, there are affordable reading glasses prominently displayed.

But for the 48 million Americans losing their hearing, simple relief like this too often remains out of reach. Not because there isn’t technology that would help, but because our health policy has not yet caught up.

Hearing aids currently cost around $5,000 per pair. Fitting and tuning are not covered by Medicare or most private insurance plans. Unable to afford these out-of-pocket costs, nearly 80 percent of Americans with hearing loss choose to suffer on their own. Conversations with friends and relatives become frustrating and painful. Workplace interactions become strenuous. Even physical balance becomes difficult.

It shouldn’t be this way. The technology exists to deliver relief to these patients and the families that love them.  But government has to act to ensure that those who stand to gain the most from that innovation are able to access it.

The Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017 would be a needed update to federal policy. This bill, considered by a House subcommittee last week, will allow certain types of hearing aids to be defined as over-the-counter (OTC) for Americans who suffer with mild to moderate hearing impairment. Just as we no longer need to schedule an appointment to check our blood pressure, those Americans would be able to walk down the street and obtain needed auditory relief without uncomfortable debt or unnecessary trouble.

The legislation would also require the FDA to ensure this new category of OTC hearing aids meets the same high standards for safety, effectiveness, and consumer protection as current hearing aids do. It implements major recommendations from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine and has been endorsed by the AARP, the Gerontological Society of America, the Academy of Doctors of Audiology, and the Hearing Loss Association of America.

When we thoughtfully leverage competition and innovation in health care, patients benefit. Those suffering from hearing loss should be no exception.  Critical technological advances like those that would allow a user to tune hearing aids through their smartphone, for example, are being hamstrung by outdated laws.

Washington must address this innovation gap. Last year, with wide bipartisan support on both sides of the Hill, Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act, which expedites the discovery, development, and delivery of new medical treatments to further promote America as the leader in biomedical advancement.  The Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017 continues that work by delivering relief to millions of Americans through greater accessibility at higher costs. From Massachusetts to Tennessee, this is not a Republican or Democratic agenda, but a chance to deliver quality health care to those in need.

As countless families know, losing your hearing can be a slow and painful process, both physically and emotionally. We cannot allow relief to be limited only to those who can afford it. 

 

Rep. Joe Kennedy III introduced the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act in March. He serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and represents Massachusetts’ Fourth Congressional District.

 Rep. Marsha Blackburn is an original co-sponsor of the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act. She chairs the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology and represents Tennessee’s Seventh Congressional District.

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