The ongoing debate over Obamacare repeal is the talk of the town in Washington, D.C. and across the country. But another, lesser-noticed health-care bill is rightfully generating plenty of controversy. The Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act, sponsored by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), would change the way Americans with hearing loss are treated, for the worse. Specifically, this bad piece of legislation would open the door for those suffering from this common ailment to receive inadequate diagnosis or treatment, leading to further health complications. With nearly 50 million people afflicted with hearing loss in this country, it’s important that we get this policy right.
How serious is this problem? According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Approximately one in three people between the ages of 65 and 74 has hearing loss and nearly half of those older than 75 have difficulty hearing.” The implications of untreated hearing loss affect every aspect of an individual’s life, from their social interactions with family and friends to their ability to work and have meaningful involvement in their communities and social groups to more serious implications, such as how they communicate with doctors and first responders in the case of an emergency.
Traditional hearing aids, on the other hand, treat hearing-loss conditions specific to each patient’s needs, as diagnosed by a licensed audiologist. The bill would not expand consumer access in any way, since PSAPs are already available over the counter for recreational use. All it would do is let PSAPs be marketed as hearing aids.
This is a great example of crony capitalism, in which an industry uses the government to create a new market for itself, regardless of the underlying policy rationale. This particular carve-out is especially egregious as it targets seniors, a population that is more susceptible than most to the fraudulent claims of marketers. Industry backers such as Bose are seeking stricter regulations on themselves because it will let them market their products directly to consumers, even though those consumers often need more than an off-the-shelf solution. Why are some Republicans going along with this big-government ploy to benefit big business?
The most important consequence of the OTC bill will be its negative impact on public health.
Many proponents of the OTC hearing-aid bill cite the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) as an endorser of over-the-counter hearing aids made available without an examination by a licensed audiologist. But just last month, NAS released a report that said, “Proper fitting and training are complex but necessary elements of maximizing performance among users of hearing devices. Consumers who work with providers trained in the use of properly prescribed and fitted hearing devices can expect better results than those who use off-the-shelf products.”
Put simply, hearing aids work when they are customized to a patient’s unique situation, not plucked off the shelf and stuck directly into a patient’s ear. Even the government body that is being cited by pro-OTC lawmakers says so!
As you would expect, Elizabeth Warren’s OTC hearing-aid bill isn’t really about free markets or consumer choice. It’s a big-government regulatory scheme designed to create new protected markets for companies such as Bose, which has its headquarters in Warren’s home state. To call PSAPs hearing aids and make them available to individuals with moderate hearing loss is a major mistake.
Congress should listen to the experts and preserve the doctor-patient relationship. Hearing loss is too important to put in the hands of Elizabeth Warren and her home-state lobbyists.
— Jim Martin is the chairman of the 60 Plus Association, the largest and oldest conservative senior organization, representing 7 million free-market-oriented seniors.