Telehealth and over-the-counter hearing aids increase access to healthcare – Orlando Sentinel

A major step toward health equity was taken earlier this month when the Food and Drug Administration created a new class of hearing aids that can be sold without a prescription.

Hearing aids have long been inaccessible to many of the more than 30 million American adults with hearing difficulties. The aids usually cost between $1,000 and $4,000 per ear, and Medicare does not cover them, nor do most insurance plans.

Being properly fitted with a prescription hearing aid requires several initial visits and regular follow-up appointments for the rest of a person’s life, which can be a burden for those with disabilities or without regular transportation.

The move will hopefully allow people to resolve hearing issues sooner, said Ryan Munsey, Central Florida regional manager for Beltone Hearing Care Centers and hearing aid specialist for Beltone Orlando.

“We’re hoping in the industry that this starts to raise awareness about hearing loss in the early stages,” Munsey said. “The sooner you treat the hearing loss, the better off you will be in the long run, that’s for sure.”

Removing these requirements will also encourage more companies to enter the market, which will likely increase the quality and reduce the cost of hearing aids as companies compete for customers.

According to a survey conducted by Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, just five manufacturers make more than 95% of hearing aids.

However, over-the-counter devices are not for everyone. They’re only intended for people with mild to moderate hearing loss, leaving about 2 million U.S. residents who still need prescription hearing aids, Munsey said.

For these patients, hearing care professionals like Munsey are finding other ways to increase accessibility.

Beltone Hearing Aids — a national chain with multiple Central Florida care centers — has in recent years given patients the option of remote assessments and follow-up appointments.

Through an app — in this case, the Beltone HearMax app — practitioners can video chat with their patients and even remotely connect to Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids to make adjustments, Munsey said.

This way, patients can get care without additional hassle, he said.

“With telehealth, it’s much easier,” he says. “You can make a quick five-minute phone call, make the adjustment, the patient doesn’t have to travel to the office.”

Having remote patients also lightens the load on offices.

“A lot of times some of these offices are so busy, they have so many patients that sometimes patients fall through the cracks,” Munsey said. “Patients, say, may cancel an appointment, and we won’t put them back on the schedule.”

Debra L. Tucci, director of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, pointed out that treating hearing loss has indirect benefits for mental and physical health.

“Hearing loss is associated with dementia, increased risk of falls, reduced mobility, depression, social isolation and anxiety,” Tucci said on her agency’s website.

These are just the latest in a series of actions to make health care more accessible after the pandemic, which has motivated many health care providers to reach out to patients through telehealth and home care rather than bringing patients to them.

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Beltone has offered telehealth for about seven to eight years and remote adjustments for about four years, but adoption has exploded in recent years, Munsey said.

That being said, Munsey still recommends in-person tours over virtual tours, if possible.

“Personal physical experience will always be … a bit more involved,” he said. “Personally, I would still prefer that to telehealth.”

Plus, unlike over-the-counter hearing aids, virtual appointments don’t reduce the cost.

Beltone’s website says it offers payment plans ranging from six to 60 months.

Some non-profit organizations such as the Beltone Hearing Care Foundation or the Hearing Aid Project provide hearing aids to those who cannot afford them. The Hearing Loss Association of America offers a list of other nonprofit organizations on its website: hearloss.org/hearing-help/financial-assistance/

[email protected]; @CECatherman Twitter

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