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October 14, 2002

Study: Insurers Deprive Patients of Ear Implants

From: Reuters, UK
Oct. 14, 2002

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Private and public health insurers, by failing to pay the full cost of treatment, are keeping patients from getting implants that could help restore their hearing, a study released on Monday concluded.

Only about 3,000 Americans got cochlear implants in 1999, a small percentage of the hundreds of thousands of deaf and hearing-impaired patients who could have benefited from them, the Rand corporation, a nonprofit research firm, concluded in its report.

The reason, the report said, is that Medicare and Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance programs, and private insurers both refused to pay for the full cost of surgery.

The study was paid for by Advanced Bionics Corp., which makes cochlear implants, but Rand said its findings and report were not controlled by the company.

"For patients to benefit from cochlear implants, audiologists, physicians and hospitals all must be willing to provide services," Steven Garber, a senior economist who led the study, said in a statement.

"A hospital often loses thousands of dollars when it allows a surgeon to perform a cochlear implant procedure in its facility. If this is a technology we want used more widely, then we need to increase some payment rates."

Cochlear implants are surgically placed into the cochlea, the snail-shaped part of the ear. They convert sound vibrations into electrical impulses that stimulate auditory nerves, which send sound signals to the brain.

They do not provide perfect hearing but have been shown to help deaf people hear a little. For example, a cochlear implant can make it possible for deaf children to attend regular classes at school.

The operation costs around $40,000 but hospitals in states where Medicaid payments are lowest may lose as much as $20,000 per patient, the Rand researchers report in the October edition of the Archives of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery.

Copyright 2002 Reuters News Service.