Sometimes consumers get the feeling corporate America has turned a deaf ear to their complaints. But the hearing aid industry?
Just ask Janet Bell -- but make sure to speak up.
When Bell, 79, bought a pair of Miracle-Ear hearing aids at Sears in the Westfield Shopping Center in Wheaton two years ago, she wanted what every hearing-impaired consumer wants -- simply to hear better. The retired Montgomery Country librarian's hearing had deteriorated so much that she hesitated to go to her church and book club meetings.
"I felt like a lump sitting there and not hearing what anybody was saying," she says. "I was ready to give up going anywhere."
After an audiologist examined her and suggested hearing aids might help, Bell saw advertisements for Miracle-Ear's digital in-the-ear hearing aids and decided to try them. With more than 1,000 Miracle-Ear franchises nationwide, many of them at Sears Hearing Aid Centers, going for the hearing evaluation was convenient.
Taking the salesman's advice, Bell bought a pair of hearing aids that cost $3,000 plus a nonrefundable $400 deposit -- seemingly a high price, she thought, but not if she could hear again.
The hearing aids didn't help.
The Miracle-Ear salesman told her that customers typically return for many adjustments. Bell says she returned seven or eight times for adjustments over the next couple of months with no improvement. "I kept thinking it was just a matter of adjusting and he kept assuring me that was the case," she says.
After Bell had her ears checked again by another audiologist who said the Miracle-Ear hearing aids weren't the answer to her problem, she asked the hearing aid center to refund her money. Request denied. While Bell was getting her hearing aids readjusted time after time, the 30-day money-back trial period slipped by.
Her hearing no better and frustration mounting, Bell asked Miracle-Ear's corporate office in Minneapolis for a refund. Request denied again. "I was fussing and writing letters to their headquarters, and they kept telling me the hearing aids could be adjusted," says Bell.
But Miracle-Ear Inc. did replace Bell's hearing aids with a more expensive, newer pair. No charge. "They weren't any better," she says. "But I did try them and try them. It was very discouraging."
More than a year after buying the first hearing aids, Bell tried a different brand an audiologist recommended. They restored some of her hearing. But she says she can't afford to forget the $3,400 on the Miracle-Ear aids that never worked.
Buying hearing aids can be troublesome for consumers. So many brands and models, so much difficulty matching proper technology to specific hearing problems. Add the high prices and too-short refund periods, and there's plenty of potential for problems such as Bell's.
"We do have quite a few [hearing aid] complaints," says Jim Hood, founder and chief executive of ConsumerAffairs.com, an online consumer news and advocacy Web site that collects consumer complaints. "Most of the complaints have these elements in common: The hearing aids don't work; they're very expensive; the cost is usually not covered by insurance; and service is provided grudgingly, if at all."
In fact, Bell's story seems common. A 2003 survey by the Consumer Union of hearing aid complaints filed in 1999 found that three-quarters of the complaints against sellers of hearing aids concerned problems with the 30-day trial period and denial of refunds.
Bob Perkins says part of the problem is that consumers get confused by the technology and often overlook the terms of their purchase. "Different manufacturers offer different money-back trial periods," said Perkins, co-chairman of the Maryland Board of Audiologists, Hearing Aid Dispensers and Speech-Language Pathologists, which licenses Maryland hearing aid professionals and investigates customer complaints.
By law, most states -- including Maryland, Virginia and the District -- give consumers a minimum 30-day money-back return guarantee on hearing aids, and some manufacturers offer longer. "The customer has to be aware of their trial period," warns Perkins, who sells Sonus hearing aids in his stores in Bel Air and Towson, Md. "If there is ongoing dialogue and adjustments, some companies extend that trial period. But some adhere to the letter of the law."
Hood says he thinks the letter of the law in many cases is inadequate. "The 30-day return policy is an outrage," he says. "It takes a lot longer than a month for most consumers to determine whether a particular hearing aid is right for them. If hearing aid manufacturers were half as ethical as they pretend to be, they'd offer at least an initial 90- or 120-day break-in period."
Contacted about Janet Bell's dispute, Miracle-Ear Inc. Vice President Paul D'Amico confirmed that Miracle-Ear products have the 30-day return guarantee, plus repair warranties of one, two or three years depending on the model. "Janet Bell didn't ask for her money back until 60 and maybe 90 days expired, and the office told her no . . . ," he says.
But D'Amico acknowledges that the promise of the hearing aids working with readjustments even as the trial period expired created "a gray area." So now Miracle-Ear has made Bell another offer: Take another ear exam, and if it finds that she can't be helped by Miracle-Ear's latest technology, he'll refund her money. If it finds that she might be helped, and she tries it for 90 days, she can keep the new hearing aids at no charge. "If the new product doesn't work out in 90 days, we'll send her a check immediately," he promises.
Although hesitant to get her hopes up, Bell says she'll do it. Stay tuned.
The new free Fall 2005 Consumer Information Catalog is now available from the federal government, listing more than 200 free or low-cost publications, titles ranging from "66 Ways to Save Money" to "The Great American Home Safety Check." To order, visit www.pueblo.gsa.gov; call 888-878-3256; or send your name and address to Consumer Information Catalog, Pueblo, Colo. 81009.
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