Hear better here

Over-the-counter hearing aids now available

Soon, millions of Americans will hear better, for less money and at greater convenience.

Beginning in October, over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids were sold at local stores and online for the first time, making it possible for adults with mild to moderate hearing loss to buy the devices without a prescription.

Major retailers, including Best Buy, Walmart, Walgreens and CVS, were set to begin selling OTC hearing aids immediately, and smaller pharmacies were likely to follow.

This new category of hearing aids was approved by the FDA in August, five years after Congress passed legislation requiring federal regulators to do so. Since then, tech companies have rushed to design cheaper devices for the new market. An estimated 30 million American adults have some hearing loss — but fewer than one-third use hearing aids.

The over-the-counter models were expected to be cheaper than most prescription devices. Hearing aids at Walgreens, for example, will cost $800, while most prescription hearing aids cost thousands of dollars. Medicare and most insurance policies do not cover hearing exams or aids, and a device costing hundreds of dollars may still be out of reach for many consumers.

Yet, less costly hearing aids are welcome news to those who have advocated for lower health care costs. At a news conference earlier this year, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra called the final FDA ruling a “standout.”  

“Get ready, folks,” Becerra said. “You’re going to save a lot of money and we are all going to benefit from that.”

But audiologists and some members of the hard-of-hearing community are skeptical of the ruling, saying consumers may lose money on ill-suited or poorly fitting hearing aids if they do not work with a specialist.

Even worse, consumers may not regain the hearing they expected from an OTC hearing aid, said Leslie Soiles, chief audiologist at the hearing clinic HearingLife. Soiles pointed out the many factors that play into hearing loss, including medical conditions not easily detected with a simple hearing exam.

“We’re asking a consumer to self-diagnose, without any … understanding of the degree of challenge they may have, or may not have, with their hearing,” Soiles said.

Similar to getting eyeglasses, the ideal situation may be a combination of professional assessment and OTC hearing aids, said Lynne Kinsey, local chapter president of Hearing Loss Association of America, a nonprofit patient support association.

“Some people buy glasses that are too strong, or that aren’t strong enough, and they wear them for a long time,” Kinsey said. “And I imagine this is going to happen with hearing aids.”

First-time hearing aid users should get their hearing checked first, Kinsey said, preferably by an audiologist. The results of a hearing exam, called an audiogram, will show what frequencies are heard and which are missed. Consumers can then see if an OTC hearing aid fits their needs.

Kinsey, who used hearing aids for many years after abrupt hearing loss at the age of 40 and now has two cochlear implants, cautions customers to do their research beforehand and be prepared to try a few before picking one that fits.

“Hearing aids are often hard to get used to,” Kinsey said. Those with profound hearing loss will not be helped by OTC hearing aids.

Still, Kinsey said she believes OTC hearing aids have the power to change many people’s lives. “It’s going to help a lot of people.”

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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