Hearing loss is a common ailment in old age as a lifetime of exposure to loud noises takes its toll on the body. While a large percentage of older people use hearing aids, those with lower incomes still struggle to access hearing healthcare services and still have difficulty hearing in day-to-day situations.
According to researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, a study of 1,133 Medicare participants found that access to hearing healthcare varies greatly based on income level. For low-income people on Medicare who are dually eligible for Medicaid, 27% percent of people reported significant difficulties with their hearing, despite the fact that they currently have a hearing aid. On the flip side, only 11% of people in the highest income bracket, which is at least four times the national poverty level, reported difficulties hearing with their hearing aid.
This might seem like a counterintuitive result, for how could someone with a hearing aid still struggle to hear? At the end of the day, however, only having a hearing aid is not enough to improve someone’s hearing. Sure, a hearing aid can be a critical aspect of someone’s hearing healthcare, but it’s not the only piece. Rather, access to high-quality routine hearing healthcare services with a professional provider is important for someone’s long-term hearing health.
Since two-thirds of US adults over the age of 70 suffer from some form of hearing loss, this study sheds some important light on the problems that the current hearing healthcare system faces. Particularly for these older adults, who already experience higher than average rates of feelings of loneliness and social isolation, difficulty hearing can worsen depression, dementia, and increase the risk of falls. Access to quality and routine hearing healthcare that can make adjustments to one’s treatment plan whenever needed can make all of the difference.
That being said, many older Americans simply cannot afford these hearing healthcare services. Hearing aids and the professional services needed to fit them are excluded from Medicare coverage while Medicaid provides only limited coverage for these older Americans and only in 28 of the 50 states.
The Cost Of Hearing Healthcare
While high-income Americans can easily pay for their hearing healthcare services out-of-pocket, lower-income older adults face a high-cost burden for the same services. A single hearing aid usually costs more than $2,000 and is often not covered by health insurance providers, even in the private sector. More importantly, however, is the lack of coverage for hearing healthcare services with a trained professional who can test for hearing loss and offer guidance for treatment.
Although legislation, such as the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017 would allow people to buy hearing aids without a prescription, this is unlikely to dismantle the barriers that people face in affording actual hearing healthcare services. While this law makes hearing aids, themselves, more accessible, it does not decrease the cost of getting the hearing aids fitted and serviced by a professional, nor does it connect low-income Americans with hearing healthcare providers who could recommend alternative treatment options and monitor their health in the long-term.
Low-income older Americans face a disproportionate burden when it comes to the financial costs of accessing hearing healthcare. Although hearing aids, themselves, are likely to become more accessible in the future, new research from Johns Hopkins demonstrates that hearing aids alone are not enough to make a difference in the hearing and quality of life of older Americans. Rather, these older citizens need low-cost access to quality hearing healthcare that can support them in their care.