Millions of Americans may soon be able to hear a bit easier. The Food and Drug Administration just announced a new rule that would permit over-the-counter sales of hearing aids.
This move to liberalize the market for hearing aids is an unmitigated piece of good news. It recognizes that patients should have greater control over the care they receive. And it promises to increase competition in the market for hearing aids, saving consumers money and expanding access in the process.
Half of seniors over the age of 75 have what the National Institutes of Health classifies as “disabling hearing loss.” Younger adults can struggle with their hearing, too. The NIH says that around 14% of Americans aged 20-69 have some level of hearing loss.
At present, a person needs a prescription to get a hearing aid. That’s limited access to — and the potential market for — hearing aids.
These supply restrictions have elevated the prices of hearing aids. Professionally fitted devices seldom cost less than $1,000, and sometimes more than $6,000 — about 17% of the U.S. median income.
For the average senior, the outlook is even grimmer. The most expensive hearing aids would strip them of 22% of their annual income.
It’s no wonder, then, that many people who would benefit from hearing aids go without. Nearly 60% of people over 55 who have hearing loss don’t use them. And over three-quarters of those who do have the cash for hearing aids say they’re still too expensive.
Shifting to an over-the-counter model would erase one of the chief barriers to getting a hearing aid — the need for a prescription from a doctor or audiologist. By expanding the potential customer base for hearing aids, it could induce manufacturers to enter the space — and reduce prices for consumers.
A possible preview of what’s ahead — speaker and headphone manufacturer Bose already sells over-the-counter hearing aids. They cost $850 — much less than the thousands of dollars that prescription hearing aids can cost today.
Scrapping regressive FDA regulations on hearing devices also opens up the possibility for even more innovation. Imagine the possibilities. Wireless headphones that double as hearing aids, or hearing aids that connect with a smartwatch.
Requiring people with common forms of hearing loss to jump through hoops to procure low-risk devices that can help them is a pointless burden — and a cruel one, too.
Sally C. Pipes is president, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith fellow in healthcare policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All (Encounter 2020). Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes. This piece originally ran in the Detroit News.