Over-the-counter hearing aids may help millions but local doctors warn of potential consequences

Posted at 5:52 PM, May 17, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-18 10:33:26-04

A renewed push in Washington may soon make over-the-counter hearing aids available and open the door for millions of Americans to get the devices they otherwise could not afford.

But local doctors are turning up the volume on health concerns surrounding the proposal.

"We want to make sure that those that are fit with hearing aids, that they're fit appropriately and that it's safe for them," said Dr. Bridgid Whitford, an audiologist with the Cleveland Hearing and Speech Center.

Possible consequences

There is bi-partisan support in the U.S. House of Representatives for the "Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act," which was introduced in March. If passed, the bill would require the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to rewrite its regulations on the hearing aid market.

But Whitford warns that the number of questions about over-the-counter hearing aids outweigh the answers at the moment. It's unclear if hearing tests would be required prior to purchase, and she said that could lead to negative consequences.

"If something is too powerful or has too much gain or loudness going into the ear, it could actually create noise-damage hearing loss," she added.

She also warned about self-diagnosing hearing loss which may actually be an unrelated medical issue.

"They [the consumer] may miss something that may be medically treated," said Whitford.

Affordable option

It's unclear how strong the hearing aids would be if offered over-the-counter, but it is clear that they would be available at a fraction of the price that they are now.

Currently, one hearing aid costs about $2,500. They are not covered by Medicare or by most insurance companies.

"I'm wondering where am I going to come up with all of this money to pay for these hearing aids," said Debbie Diaz, a Cleveland resident diagnosed with moderate hearing loss but unable to afford the current price tag. "I just want to be able to hear people and enjoy my grandkids to the fullest."

Diaz, 52, said she would likely be turning to over-the-counter hearing aids if it hadn't been for a financial assistance program through the Cleveland Hearing and Speech Center. Instead, she will soon be getting prescription hearing aids at a deeply discounted price.

"Nationally, everybody recognizes that hearing aids need to be more financially accessible," said Whitford who added that the hearing and speech center supports affordability of the devices. "We just want to make sure the consumers are protected throughout the process."