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Medicare & Hearing Aids

While original Medicare Parts A and B do not cover hearing aids, most Medicare Advantage plans often include some form of hearing coverage. A 2014 study by HealthPocket found that 59% of Medicare Advantage plans nationwide offered some form of hearing benefits for enrollees.

Hearing benefits are especially important to Medicare beneficiaries since hearing loss is one of the most common medical conditions for seniors. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, approximately 1-in-3 people between age 65 and 74 suffer from hearing loss. The average age of a first-time hearing aid user is 69 years old in the U.S. The average age of all hearing aid users in the U.S. is 72 years old.

Hearing loss can lead not only to social isolation because of an inability to understand others but can also lead to dangerous situations when important sounds like fire alarms or burglar alarms go unheard. To make matters worse, hearing aids and cochlear implants can be incredibly expensive.

Hearing Aid Prices

Hearing aids can be very costly, particularly for people living on a fixed income like Social Security checks. Hearing aid prices depend not only on the brand, technology, and features of the hearing device you choose but also the place that fits and configures the hearing aid for you. Consumer Reports estimated that in 2014 hearing aids could range in cost from $1,000 to $6,000.

Given the high cost of hearing aids and the lack of standard Medicare coverage, consumers should look at numerous tactics that could decrease costs such as:

  • Comparison reviews of hearing aids to avoid overpaying for features and performance
  • Investigate insurance options that could lower costs on any of the items associated with hearing loss from audiologist services to hearing aid purchase to hearing aid fitting
  • Determining with the help of audiologist (or Ears/Nose/Throat doctor) whether your hearing impairment is best served by a hearing aid or a lower cost personal sound amplifier

Hearing aids do not last forever. Consumers may need to replace hearing aids after 5 years.

Hearing Aid Batteries

An often overlooked expense with respect to hearing aids is their batteries. Hearing aid batteries are small and they may be actively used for all waking hours unless the hearing aid user has times during the day when wearing hearing aids is unnecessary. Depending on the battery size and daily use of the hearing aid, batteries may last as little as three days. Some hearing aids with very large batteries may have the batteries’ power last around two weeks.

The cost of battery replacement depends on the battery used. Smaller batteries for smaller hearing aids may be more expensive and have a shorter lifespan. Buying batteries in bulk can reduce annual battery costs. Additionally, depending on the make and model of the hearing aid, rechargeable batteries may be an option. However, rechargeable batteries for hearing aids may only last for one year of use.

Tinnitus

Tinnitus is a medical condition where a person perceives a consistent sound for which there is no external source. Sometimes described as a ringing in the ears, tinnitus, the sound may be perceived as ringing, whistling, buzzing, or other persistent noise. Noise exposure is one of the leading causes for tinnitus symptoms. Tinnitus is sometimes accompanied by some degree of hearing impairment.

Tinnitus can manifest in multiple negative effects. Increased stress, reduced concentration, and sleep problems can all result from tinnitus. These conditions, in turn, can lead to social and professional problems.

Hearing aids can provide the potential to reduce the effect of tinnitus and some hearing aids have a tinnitus therapy feature. These hearing aids divert attention away from the tinnitus sound and draw the user’s attention to external sounds. The tinnitus feature may use a ‘white noise’ sound or other signal to distract from the tinnitus and may allow for fine-tuning of the tinnitus therapy signal. To learn more about the potential use of hearing aids in the treatment of tinnitus, consumers should consult an audiologist or Ears/Nose/Throat physician.

Cochlear Implant

While not a traditional hearing aid, a cochlear implant is an important part of the hearing assistance market. There is a basic difference between a traditional hearing aid and a cochlear implant:

  • A hearing aid functions to improve sound volume and quality for the ear to perceive
  • A cochlear implant provides sound signals to the brain by stimulating nerves in the inner ear

Cochlear implants are designed for individuals with severe hearing impairments. They were first introduced to the market in the mid-1980s.

Medicare does not cover cochlear implants in all cases. According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), Medicare will cover cochlear implants only for patients who meet all of the following guidelines:

  • Diagnosis of bilateral moderate-to-profound sensorineural hearing impairment with limited benefit from appropriate hearing aids or vibrotactile aids
  • Cognitive ability to use auditory clues and a willingness to undergo an extended program of rehabilitation
  • Freedom from middle ear infections
  • An accessible cochlear lumen that is structurally suited to implantation
  • Freedom from lesions in the auditory nerve and acoustic areas of the central nervous system
  • No contraindications to surgery
  • The cochlear implant must be used in accordance with FDA-approved labeling

Audiologist

Primary care physicians may refer people suffering from hearing loss to an audiologist. Audiologists are healthcare providers who diagnose, treat, and manage hearing loss and balance disorders. Audiologists can prescribe as well as fit hearing aids. Audiologists can also provide rehabilitation services related to:

  • Auditory training
  • Speech reading
  • Improvement of listening skills

Audiologists may also assist in cochlear implant programs but audiologists do not perform the cochlear implant surgery.

Digital Hearing Aids

Digital hearing aids are one of two types of hearing aids. Digital hearing aids process sound waves and provide more ability to manipulate sound than the original analog hearing aid technology. Digital hearing aids have the ability to discriminate among types of noises and suppress certain types of sound (such as background noise) and enhance other types of sound (such as speech).

Digital hearing aids are typically more expensive than analog hearing aids.

Analog Hearing Aids

Analog hearing aids were in the market before digital hearing aids were developed. They typically are less expensive than digital hearing aids. Analog hearing aids increase the volume of sound waves. All external sounds are amplified. Some analog hearing aids are programmable so that their amplification settings may be adjusted for different environments.

Hearing Aid Brands

The hearing aid market has several well-known brands. Among the more popular hearing aid companies are:

  • Phonak hearing aids
  • Oticon hearing aids
  • Siemens hearing aids
  • GN ReSound hearing aids
  • Starkey hearing aids
  • Widex hearing aids
  • Unitron hearing aids

Not all hearing aid companies offer all types of hearing aids. There are traditional hearing aids, bone conducting systems, cochlear implants, and other options. There are also different hearing aid designs such as in-the-ear and behind-the- ear. The six largest hearing aid companies control approximately 90% of the hearing aid market.

Hearing Aid Retailers

Hearing aids can be purchased through an audiologist or through retail stores.

Three of the biggest retailers for hearing aids are:

  • Walmart
  • Kroger
  • Costco

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