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On Tuesday, July 14, 2015, at a news conference on adding Medicare coverage of hearing aids, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) discussed H.R. 1653, the “Medicare Hearing Aid Coverage Act of 2015,” the first bill she introduced as a member of Congress, which would allow Medicare to provide coverage for hearing aids. She was joined by  Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), a long-time Medicare champion, along with the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), which released an issue brief: “The Case for Expanding Medicare, Hearing Loss: The Economic, Social and Medical Factors Impacting Healthy Aging.”

Currently, Medicare does not provide coverage for hearing assessments or hearing aids, although millions of beneficiaries live with hearing loss. One in every three older adults between 65 and 74 years old have hearing loss. More than 70 percent are not using hearing aids, mainly because many seniors cannot afford them. Today the average price of a pair of hearing aids ranges between $4,400 and $4,500.

Lack of hearing aids has an impact on quality of life; but, new research indicates hearing loss effects go far beyond. According to the NCPSSM study, hearing loss is connected to depression, isolation, and an increased risk of cognitive impairment. A recent JAMA study, “Hearing Loss and Cognitive Decline,” found that hearing loss increases shrinkage of the brain, which speeds severe health effects, such as dementia. One of the authors of the study, who spoke at the press conference at the Capitol, Dr. Frank Lin, M.D., Ph.D., Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Bloomberg School of Public Health, projects dementia cases will become more prevalent as the population ages. By 2050, Lin predicts, “1 in 30 living American will have dementia.”  Although systematic treatment is needed, early intervention of hearing loss may delay dementia, and would certainly improve the quality of life.

Rep. Dingell’s bill would improve access to hearing aids and related examinations by removing part of the Social Security Act that prevents Medicare from covering hearing aids. The bill also directs the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct a study on insurance programs that provide services to help with hearing loss.

The Medicare Hearing Aid Coverage Act of 2015 would improve the quality of life and health outcomes for older Americans. In her closing remarks, Rep. Dingell made a call to action to seniors and advocates in the room, “at Medicare’s 50th anniversary, the time to talk about expanding the program, to improve this program and strengthen it, is now.”

July 2015 – Jessica Bonilla, Summer Policy Fellow

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