Untreated hearing loss isolates millions of Americans. President Joe Biden’s efforts to expand Medicare to hearing aids have stalled in Washington. But in Montpellier, lawmakers are currently considering a bill that would require certain Vermont private insurance plans to cover them.
Hearing-impaired advocates are pushing for its passage, saying disability is more common than people realize.
Rebecca Chalmers was one of many people to testify last month before members of the Vermont House Committee on Health Care. She’s a scientist who lives in Rockingham. He is also a hard of hearing person.
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“We are here because insurance companies are targeting my disability group for the total exclusion of one of the most common health care needs,” she told lawmakers.
According to the advocacy group Hear! To listen! Vermont, hearing loss affects approximately 17% of all Vermont residents. It’s an invisible disability that becomes even more common as people get older.
Sophisticated hearing aids that require professional fitting with an audiologist can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $6,000 a pair, or even more.
Medicaid covers the cost for low-income Vermonters, but most private insurance companies in the state, as well as Medicare, do not.
This gap in coverage is a key reason Vernon resident Tim Arsenault put off getting his hearing checked. A longtime radio host, he began noticing hearing problems in his mid-50s.
“I was a bit embarrassed,” admitted Arsenault, who is now 65. “But I was also very concerned about the cost because in my case, my hearing aids were just over $3,000. And I didn’t have that kind of money lying around the house.
Arsenault said the hearing aids he eventually bought made a big difference, but he had to use a credit card to buy them.
Many other hard of hearing simply do without. According to the Hearing Loss Association of America, only about 20% of people who might benefit from treatment seek help.
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This is unacceptable for Ruby Baker, who directs Hear! To listen! Vermont. She said that if left untreated, hearing loss makes labor more difficult. And studies show it increases the risk of falling, developing dementia and feeling isolated.
“We know that social isolation is as bad for you as smoking, obesity, or physical inactivity,” Baker said.
That’s why she’s encouraging Vermont lawmakers to pass legislation known as H.266. It would take many private insurance plans in Vermont to cover hearing aids.
Hinesburg Rep. William Lippert chairs the House health care committee that heard testimony on the bill.
“What we’re trying to do is work with the Hear! Hear! Coalition, to try to get hearing aid services included in as many parts of this health insurance landscape as possible. in Vermont,” he said.
Ruby Baker with Hear! To listen! Vermont said the bill would impact most people who “purchase insurance independently of Blue Cross Blue Shield or MVP Health Care or obtain a plan on the exchange.”
If you get your insurance through your job, it said whether or not hearing aids are covered by your policy may depend on the size of your employer and whether their plan is regulated by the state.
At the beginning of March, the Green Mountain Care Board spoke out on hearing aids. The board regulates insurance rate increases in Vermont and works to control health care spending.
He endorsed a proposal to include hearing aids in Vermont insurance plans offered under the Affordable Care Act.
This means that Vermont now has permission to ask the federal government to add hearing aids to the list of essential health benefits without incurring additional costs to the state.
This is a change that will take effect in 2024.
“You know, if you can’t hear, it’s pretty hard to function. So that seems like a very reasonable benefit to include in the essential health benefits package.”
Kevin Mullin, Chairman of the Board of Green Mountain Care
Board Chairman Kevin Mullin said that of the northeastern states, Vermont and Pennsylvania are the only two that do not currently include hearing aids as an essential health benefit.
“We have a board member with hearing aids, so we understand that, you know, if you can’t hear, it’s pretty hard to function,” Mullin continued. “So that seems like a very reasonable benefit to include in the essential health benefit package.
According to Mullin, hearing aid coverage would cost between 30 and 60 cents per member per month. Initially, he said only about 75,000 Vermonters would qualify, and he hopes recently enhanced federal subsidies will continue to offset the price increase.
“What we’re basically guaranteeing is that the individual and small group insurance markets will have that,” Mulllin said. “It’s not determined yet, but you have to start somewhere, and if this group takes advantage of it, it’s hard for others not to take advantage of it.”
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In other words, he says, once some insurance plans cover hearing aids, others, like private plans run by large corporations, which aren’t regulated by the state, will follow to stay. competitive.
Sara Teachout, spokesperson for BlueCross Blue Shield of Vermont, said they have not taken a position for or against adding hearing aids. But in a
letter to lawmakers, she said the company is concerned about the large number of proposals that will increase premiums for consumers, including: rising hospital costs, new information technology requirements and the extension mental health coverage. Hearing aids will add another.