IM this article to a friend!

May 5, 2003

Seniors receive hearing aid help

From: Shreveport Times, LA - May 5, 2003

Alisa Stingley / The Times

A program providing free hearing aids to needy senior citizens in Louisiana who qualify has had such overwhelming response that a year's worth of funding was used up in only a few months.

About 700 persons have been served through the program operated by the Louisiana Commission for the Deaf and about 130 are on a waiting list, said Jan Faulkner, commission executive director. She said she is not aware of any other state with such a program.

She expects even more response when the next funding allotment comes through July 1, even though the program hasn't been widely advertised.

"We're going to again be swamped," she said. "It's such a popular thing because we are the only agency that these elderly, needy people can go to for help with hearing aids. Medicare does not provide hearing aids for the elderly."

The program, which began Dec. 1, is financed by a $750,000 annual allotment from the state's LCD Telecommunication Fund for the Deaf - money that has been accumulating from a 5-cent-per-month tax on phone lines since 1988.

That fund, which is dedicated and can't be dipped into for other state uses, generates $1.2 million a year for TDDs (Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf), amplified telephones, doorbell ringers, alerting systems and other assistive devices for the hearing impaired.

Over time, a surplus has built up, and Faulkner sought approval from the Legislature to use some of the extra money to provide free hearing aids.

"We had been seeing a need for years and years for helping people who couldn't afford hearing aids," she said.

By age 75, half of all Americans will have some type of hearing impairment, according to the National Campaign for Hearing Health. Statistics also show that only 20 percent of those who need a hearing aid have one.

The hearing aids being provided free through the Louisiana program would typically cost about $1,400 to $1,500, Faulkner said. That's far beyond what Shreveporter Vernon Lawrence, 74, could afford, since he and his wife live on a fixed income.

Lawrence heard about the program from a friend and signed up in late December. Before he got the hearing aids, he estimated he could understand only about 40 percent of what he was hearing.

"It was getting worse constantly," he said. "The time would have come that I would have understood only 10 percent."

In church, for example, "I could hear words but not have any idea what they were saying," Lawrence said.

Now, though, "I can hear everything," and his wife doesn't have to make him turn down the television, he said with a laugh.

Al Bell and his wife, Betty, of Mooringsport both qualified for the hearing aid program.

Bell, 78, said he has trouble hearing high-pitched voices and on the phone.

"I just avoided talking over the telephone whenever I could," he said. "(The hearing aid) has solved those two problems. It's been very, very helpful."

Faulkner said she has heard many heart-warming stories of how the program has improved the quality of life for seniors.

"One lady sent me a letter and said she now on Sunday morning laughs at the preacher's joke because she understands it, not because everybody else is laughing," she said. "It just gets to your heart."

The program is set up with service providers in each region of the state. In this area, that is the Deaf Action Center, which sends an applicant's forms and documentation to the deaf commission. Faulkner's office than sends the applicant an authorization letter to take to a vendor, such as a local audiologist.

The vendor is paid a fitting fee by the program, but that's not the only incentive to participate, said Dennis Gunn of Better Hearing Systems in Bossier City. Pleased customers may tell their friends, generating new business from customers who may be able to afford hearing aids, he said.

Gunn said he too has seen some remarkable changes in people. "Every one I have fitted walked out of here almost crying," he said.

Hearing aid manufacturers also have a role in the program, Faulkner said. Twelve makers have agreed to provide hearing aids at a wholesale cost of no more than $400 each, she said.

The program will continue as long as there is a surplus, which Faulker said she hopes will last seven or eight years. Even though this year's allotment has been used, the waiting list will be whittled if surplus funds come in before July 1. Most people have been patient, Faulkner said.

"A lot of them wait anyway for so much."

To be eligible for the free hearing aid program, you must be at least 50 (there are special circumstances where younger individuals may qualify) and have an annual income of no more than $22,150 for an individual or $29,850 for two people in a household. In this region, persons may apply at the Deaf Action Center, 601 Jordan in Shreveport (425-7781). You will need proof of residency, a photo identification, and documentation of hearing loss (audiological report or doctor's prescription). For more information, contact either the Deaf Action Center or the Louisiana Commission for the Deaf at (800) 256-1523.

Copyright 2003 © The Times.