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May 1, 2007

Insurance lets more people opt for surgery and chance to hear

From: Salt Lake Tribune - Salt Lake City,UT,USA - May 1, 2007

By Heather May
The Salt Lake Tribune

When Ben and Becca Larson's first daughter was born deaf nine years ago, they rejected the idea of cochlear implants, even though the electronic devices can help the deaf hear and speak.

Back then, the Springville couple felt the implants "meant you didn't love your child and didn't accept them the way they came," said Becca Larson.

Since then, the two have changed their minds. Their first child has the implants, along with two more who were also born deaf.

"I love hearing, and now I can just talk, talk, talk," 9-year-old Hannah Larson recently told a group of audiologists.

Insurance companies are learning to accept the implants, too.

That's why their number is growing in Utah since the state's two largest insurance companies - Intermountain Healthcare and Regence BlueCross BlueShield - started covering them.

In 2005, one year before the implants were covered, Primary Children's Medical Center performed 17 surgeries. The number almost doubled, to 30, in 2006. So far this year, 14 children have received the implants.

The surgery can cost $25,000 to $40,000, so medical coverage has "been a huge deal for families," said Nanette Sturgill, the hospital's audiology manager.

Heather Whitestone McCallum, who became the first Miss America with a disability in 1995, got a cochlear implant when she was 29. McCallum, who also attended the audiology conference, said she couldn't read as well as Hannah when she was in third grade or take notes in school.

If she has a deaf child, "I will do cochlear implants at 6 months."

The Larsons have witnessed how early implantation makes a difference. Hannah was almost 3 when she got hers, and it took her 6 months to turn to the sound of her name. Sarah, now 8, was a couple of months younger, and she responded in 5 months. It took Justin, now 5, just two weeks. He got his at 15 months old.

Ben Larson said the family's initial goal with the implants was to be able to warn their children about dangers. "I never expected it would be this good," he said.

Still, the decision to seek implants is not easy, Sturgill warned.

It takes "very emotional decision-making by families to choose the child to be aural or choose to be part of the deaf culture," he said.

© 2007 Salt Lake Tribune