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May 13, 2004

Hearing Aid Debate

From: KLAS, NV - May 13, 2004

(May 13) -- Thirty million Americans suffer from hearing loss. To help, many people turn to hearing aids. But these devices are often too expensive for the people who need them. Hearing loss is the third most chronic condition among seniors, behind arthritis and blood pressure. Bertha Brandau of Las Vegas has suffered from it for 12 years. Like millions of Americans, she went and purchased a set of hearing aids.

"It sounded like I had microphones in my ears all the time," said Brandau. That's a common complaint. In fact, many people give up on hearing aids because the cost doesn't equal the benefit.

Some cost more than $7,000. They're also a confusing product to buy. For example, when Bertha recently went shopping, she was quoted, $5,000, $2,500, $2,100 or $1,720. She never did hear the price her brother in Canada was quoted. "He got his hearing aids for $500," she said.

The price range has led a growing number of people to ask why you can't just buy hearing aids over the counter for a small fee, like $100. The argument is they would allow those who can't afford high priced devices a chance to hear. Buying a hearing aid over the counter would certainly lower the cost, but those in the medical profession say it would also prevent the patient from getting the care and the device they might need.

Dr. Phil Christensen, a Las Vegas audiologist, says, "A patient cannot fit his or her own needs over the counter, first there may be a medical problem in the ear that we need to solve. So they do need to go through a battery of tests ear examination to make sure they are proper candidates, they do need to see a medical doctor then they're referred to a medical service at that point for help."

Dr. Christensen says if the patient can't afford a hearing aid, they may be covered under Medicaid. But those who aren't are faced with having to purchase an expensive device or going without one at all. Brandau adds, "When you're retired and you live on social security and a limited income, it appears today that we're not supposed to have any eyes, teeth or ears."

But that's not reality. What is, are hearing devices with big price tags. But some say it doesn't have to be that way. The question is will the government, which regulates hearing aids, allow cheaper ones to be sold.

In February, the FDA rejected petitions allowing hearing aids to be sold over the counter. But the doctor who submitted them is asking for help again. A new petition has been submitted, this time asking for a new "one size fits all" classification to make hearing aids more affordable.

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