It may be the speech and hearing industry’s best-kept secret, but if you have mild to moderate hearing loss, you may not have to invest in new, pricey hearing aids.
No, I’m not talking about a miracle cure. It’s more mundane than that: You can have a pre-owned hearing aid reprogrammed to fit your needs.
Improved technology and better designs have made the repurposing of used hearing aids more feasible, said Margaret McCabe, an instructor and audiologist at the University of Maryland in College Park.
“People can, indeed, think of today’s digital aids as little computers in their ears, with software that can be tweaked over time,” said David Myers, a psychology professor at Hope College in Michigan Holland, Mich., and author of “A Quiet World: Living with Hearing Loss.”
Refurbished hearing devices are available from some manufacturers at a fraction of the cost of new ones. (See box.) Friends and relatives also can pass along aids they no longer need.
When she recently upgraded her hearing aids, McCabe gave her old devices to her sister, who had them reprogrammed and now uses them for her mild hearing loss.
I was able to secure a nearly new pair left behind by my father, who died this year at 91. The cost to me? Not counting my $35 insurance co-pay for the diagnostic exam: $0. The savings? Roughly $2,500.
Like many people around my age — 54 — my hearing had been in decline for a few years. Once I turned 50, everyone I knew began to mumble, or so it seemed. This included friends and colleagues I spoke to face to face and by phone, as well as the voices I had once heard clearly on TV and radio. Asking people to speak up or increasing the volume on my electronics didn’t always help. And sometimes it just made the muffled voices louder.
It’s not unusual for people around my age to begin noticing their hearing start to fade, but it’s far more common in people even older. About one-third of people between ages 65 and 75 have a hearing loss, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Among people 75 and older, it’s 40 to 50 percent.
In addition to being tormented by low talkers and mumblers, I began to have trouble differentiating certain speech sounds — particularly soft consonants such as “s” and “d” (“rose” vs. “road,” for instance). And I had difficulty carrying on a conversation in my car because I couldn’t hear over the road noise.
I resolved to get to the bottom of this worsening annoyance and scheduled an appointment with the same Rockville hearing specialists who had treated my father.
After examining my ears and ruling out infection or injury, my audiologist, Jennifer Kincaid, concluded that my hearing problem probably was age-related — the cumulative effect of decades of daily exposure to traffic sounds, construction noise and, yes, loud music on the ears’ sensitive nerves. I had the classic signs of presbycusis, the medical term for age-related hearing loss. Kincaid thought hearing aids might help.
The bad news was that I’d been laid off from my job five months earlier and hadn’t budgeted for this kind of costly purchase.
Channeling my inner cheapskate — another thing passed down from my father — I asked about repurposing his old aids. My audiologist said sure.
It didn’t matter that my father’s hearing was much worse than mine. Kincaid said she could configure the aids to correct my hearing loss simply by plugging them into a port in her computer and replacing data from Dad’s hearing tests with mine.
Kincaid says she is asked to do such reprogramming about a dozen times a year, and she provides the service free to patients’ family members. She’ll reprogram the device as many times as necessary for the life of the device — typically, about five years.
The device I inherited has a tiny speaker that sits deep inside my ear canal. After doing the reprogramming, Kincaid just switched the size of the cap covering the speaker and the hearing aid was ready for me to use.
Oticon, the company that made the device, agreed to continue honoring the warranty, including unlimited servicing and one replacement.
I’m not the first person to shudder at the cost of a new hearing aid. “The number one call we get is from people looking for financial help paying for hearing aids,” says Barbara Kelley of the Hearing Loss Association of America in Bethesda. “Cost is clearly a barrier for a lot of people.” (The group offers advice on paying for hearing aids at www.hearingloss.org.)
Even if your health insurance covers a hearing test and even if a test shows that you are a good candidate for a hearing aid, you shouldn’t count on your insurer’s paying for one. The Blue Cross federal plan is an exception, providing better coverage than most, according to Bettie Borton, president of the American Academy of Audiology. Recently, however, insurance giant UnitedHealthcare began offering discounts on a limited, specially made line of hearing aids sold through a subsidiary named hi HealthInnovations.UnitedHealthcare’s devices start around $800, but some experts warn that the price is deceptive since it doesn’t include face-to-face contact with a hearing aid specialist and many of the other services that traditionally have been part of a hearing aid package.
Hearing tests are generally covered under Medicare, but not hearing aids. Medicaid also denies hearing aid coverage for adults in most states.
Steve Joiner, 55, an insurance agent in Lawrenceville, Ga., whose hearing was damaged when his blood pressure spiked, recently acquired hearing aids from his wife, who had cochlear implants in both ears last year and no longer needs her old devices. With the couple’s budget depleted after the $6,000 expense of his wife’s implants, buying new aids wasn’t in the financial cards. “It was good to know there was an option,” he said.
Felicia Workman of Indianapolis intends to pay forward the kindness of a good Samaritan who anonymously responded to her minister’s appeal by donating a barely used hearing aid set to her teenage son Nathan two years ago, after Medicaid refused to pay for them. After an audiologist reprogrammed the aids for free, Nathan’s grade-point average shot up from barely passing to 3.4. With Nathan’s sights now set on college, Workman says she’s saving up to replace his current device with an $11,000 state-of-the-art hearing aid that can connect wirelessly to a professor’s microphone, a cellphone and other electronics.
“Once we get his college aids, we’ll be looking to donate the ones he has now,” she said.
If you need a used hearing aid or have one to donate, these organizations may be able to help:
● Center for Hearing Aids and Speech, 713-523-3633
● Chattering Children, 202-333-1403
● Lions Club International, 630-571-5466
● Starkey Hearing Foundation, 866-354-3254
● National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (part of the National Institutes of Health)
Zeidner is a freelance writer in Arlington.