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June 15, 2003

Now hear this: shop cautiously

From: Richmond Times Dispatch, VA - Jun 15, 2003

Jun 15, 2003

You know you need a hearing aid. You can't hear or understand certain voices and sounds that are within earshot, and you're tired of asking, "What?"

Yet, you hesitate to get tested, maybe because you don't know where to start, who to trust, which type and style of hearing aid to buy or if you can afford one.

Hearing aids are a big investment. A pair of digital hearing aids, the best that technology has to offer, can cost $6,000-$7,000, said Rick Ledbetter, a Williamsburg jazz musician who bought a pair and is a zealous advocate for hearing-aid wearers.

So, invest carefully or your new hearing aid might end up in a drawer gathering dust, and your hard-earned money will disappear.

•Get tested. Carole Rogin, president of the Hearing Industry Association in Alexandria, which represents manufacturers, recommends going to an ear, nose and throat doctor for your first hearing aid. "Hearing aids are medical devices," she said.

"A lot of places do it for free," said George Bowling, owner of Better Hearing Centers Hearing Aids on Kensington Avenue in Richmond. But some are better than others, he said. "If you go to someone and don't feel comfortable, most people go to someone else. It never hurts to check around."

•Be sure your hearing aid specialist is state licensed. Call and ask the Hearing Aid Specialist Board (804) 367-8509.
•Don't anticipate perfect hearing. Hearing aids "help people hear better but will not restore hearing to normal," Rogin said. "Nothing's going to give you back the hearing that God gave you," Bowling said.
•Hearing aids aren't stocked on store shelves. You get a hearing test, an impression is taken of your ear, the hearing aid gets ordered and factory-programmed to your hearing needs, then it must be fitted and adjusted to your ear. The process takes about a month. Next comes many months of follow-up visits to fine-tune it.
•Hearing aids cost from zero to more than $3,000 each. They're free if you're poor enough. Hear Now in Minnesota, (800) 648-4327, is one of several hearing-aid-assistance programs. If, for example, your family-of-two's annual income and assets don't exceed $15,150, you can apply for a hearing aid in exchange for a nonrefundable $50 application processing fee. A ton of paperwork is involved.

Otherwise, hearing-aid prices vary widely, depending on the type (analog or digital) and style (behind or inside the ear). Expect to pay $400 to more than $3,000 for one hearing aid, including an exam, fittings and adjustments. One King William resident, Ruby Akers, paid $2,295 for her digital hearing aid.

•Consider going digital. "Analogs are on the way out rapidly," said Ledbetter, who, as a bassist and composer, lives and breathes digital audio production and went through two pairs of analog hearing aids before upgrading to digital.

"I wouldn't even bother with the other kind," said Akers, whose hearing was 60 percent without a hearing aid, now about 87 percent with a digital one. "I'm satisfied with this kind."

What's the difference? Analog hearing aids take sounds as they are and just make them louder, said Rogin. They may be programmable with different channels - one, say, for the user's work environment, another for watching TV, another for cocktail parties, and so on. The user changes the channel to fit the environment. Digital hearing aids take incoming sounds, break them into components, then reassemble them in a way that delivers clearer sound quality, Rogin said.

But, "some people may not need all that technology," she said.

•Expect a shock when you first put them on. "I don't like the feel in my ear," said Akers. "It feels like a finger stuck in my ear." Also, everything sounds so noisy, she said. "But, it's noise you've just not been hearing a lot of the time."

Ledbetter initially experienced sound that was "harsh, too loud. Music was highly distorted and they hurt my ears."

Said Rogin, "They'll start hearing the buzz of the refrigerator and think it's broken. In the car, they will hear road noise and be bothered by that. It's a whole renewed world of sound and it takes getting used to."

•Really don't like them? You'll pay if you return them. State regulations require that consumers get a 30-day trial for hearing aids, said the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation. But, if you return one, you may have to pay a $100-$200 fee, per hearing aid, to the specialist seeking to recoup costs incurred on your behalf.
•What about a warranty? Warranties may cost $100-$150 a year, said Bowling. Without one, a repair might cost $200-$500, depending on the circuitry of the hearing aid.
•Brace for potentially disappointing care. After many visits, a poorly trained specialist might fail to satisfactorily adjust your hearing aid to the best fidelity for you. The solution, find a good audiologist - a college-educated hearing specialist that tests, fits and adjusts hearing aids.

Go to for more information on hearing problems and hearing aids. Check out what hearing-aid users, including Ledbetter, say about their hearing-aid experiences and how to pick a good audiologist.

•Develop critical listening skills. Keep a journal of what does not sound right in different venues, such as restaurants and cocktail parties, while wearing your hearing aid, Ledbetter said. Communicate specifics to your hearing professional, who can then make precise adjustments. Write: "When I'm washing dishes, the sound of water running in my stainless steel sink is too loud," not, "My hearing aid is too loud."
•Don't expect Medicare to pay. "People need to know that Medicare does not cover hearing aids," said Rogin. Your insurance company might not pay, either.
Consumer Watch appears weekly except for the first Sunday of the month, when The Times-Dispatch publishes the Small Business column. If you have consumer concerns, call Iris Taylor at (804) 649-6349 or write to her c/o Richmond Times-Dispatch Business News Department, P.O. Box 85333, Richmond, VA 23293. Her e-mail address is

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