Q:  What are over-the-counter hearing aids? Are they the same as prescription hearing aids?

A:  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agreed in August to allow over-the-counter hearing aids to be sold directly to the public. No prescription is needed and no fitting by an audiologist is required. This is a big step in making hearing aids more accessible to the public. It is important to understand, however, that they are not the same as prescription devices.

Over-the-counter hearing aids are easier to get and much less expensive than the prescription ones. That accessibility also comes with limitations in what they can offer.

Over-the-counter devices are simply amplifiers of sound. They can work wonderfully if you only need a simple amplification. They are meant for people with mild to moderate hearing loss. That means your hearing loss range is between 20 and 60 decibels (dB). However, you do not need a hearing test to try out these devices.

You may have noticed you ask people to repeat themselves more often or run the TV at a higher volume than you used to. You can simply try out an over-the-counter device and see if it benefits you. But because they are not for everyone, you may want to see if you can get a hearing test covered by your insurance first, so you do not waste your money on a less expensive device only to find it is not working for you.

Anyone with hearing loss, regardless of level, can use the prescription devices. They have more advanced technology than over-the-counter devices. They also include fitting and support by a specialist. While this adds to why they are more expensive, it also means you can be assured they will be designed for your specific needs.

The cost of hearing aids varies greatly. Prescription devices on average cost about $4,600 per pair, though some can be as high as $10,000. That prices includes not only the device but also the professional fitting, follow-up treatment and maintenance. Straight Medicare does not cover hearing aids. Some supplemental plans have a hearing aid benefit. For this reason, for many people a less expensive option is very valuable.

Over-the-counter devices can be purchased at local drug stores and range in cost from $100 up to a couple thousand dollars per pair. There is no process or pre-approval required.

For people with hearing loss, the benefit of a hearing aid is priceless. It equates to quality of life. When hearing loss becomes an issue, it is not just about turning the TV up louder. It means conversations with friends become burdensome. Suddenly large social events are tiresome, and you can no longer enjoy socialization. There is even a link between hearing loss and cognitive decline, because the person stops engaging in everyday life.

Easier access to hearing aids is a huge benefit to people. Millions of people across the country experience hearing loss, and many wait years before seeking help. If an over-the-counter option encourages people to try them earlier in their hearing loss that is a great benefit. While they may not be for every case, they are a great starting point  and can enhance quality of life for many.

Martha Shapiro can be reached at Senior Concerns at 805-497-0189 or by email at mshapiro@seniorconcerns.org.

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