HLAA Workshop: Encouraging Transparency in Hearing Aid Pricing

August 24, 2011 in Hearing Loss & Deafness, Research
 By Marla Dougherty, 7/1/2011

This workshop was a continuation of the discussion about Consumer Reports research on hearing aids that was held earlier in the conference. The discussion was led by Elissa Schuler Adair, Ph.D., Manager, Health Care Research and Senior Editor, Tobie Stanger.

My colleague Bonnie O’Leary reported on the plenary session in our NVRC Email News (6/29/11). As Bonnie wrote, Consumer Reports considers hearing aids a priority area for health consumer advocacy. In 2009, a survey was conducted among 1,100 people who wear hearing aids which showed most people by and large, were satisfied with their hearing aids and 30% were highly satisfied.

The survey also highlighted many people feel there are few pricing options offered by providers. Consumer Reports came to the HLAA convention to have a conversation about what we can do as a group and as consumers to encourage transparency in hearing aid pricing. Consumers face many challenges when shopping for hearing aids. The price of the hearing aid often includes follow-up visits for adjustments, but even with the same hearing aid, service may differ among providers. This makes it hard to shop around for the better price.

Those of us attending the workshop were given the opportunity to add our own top concerns when purchasing hearing aids which we wrote on sticky notes that were collected and compiled.

Our concerns were:
– Unbundling the price of hearing aids
– The high cost of hearing aids
– There should be a universal price for hearing aids/basic price
– Knowing the audiologist and dispenser’s qualifications
– Getting the correct hearing aid
– Programming expertise of provider
– Staying on top of technology/how do they work?
– Warranty

The hearing aid market is not consumer-friendly and many agree that change is needed. With a large population aging into hearing loss, the challenge is making the information available and accessible to those that need it. Dr. Adair asked if the internet would be a good source for consumer outreach, but members of the audience pointed out many seniors are not internet savvy and there are numerous spam sites on hearing aids.  Dr. Adair suggested other possible approaches:

– Reports on regional price variation
– Group purchasing (Costco does bulk purchasing)
– Grass roots advocacy
– Abuse reporting
– User reviews
– Legislators action health plan services

There was a lot of brainstorming during this session with two and then three microphones being passed around. People shared stories and concerns asking others in the room, “Did you ask for a hearing aid upgrade or did the audiologist suggest it?” “Why did hearing aids have so many buttons and programs when two would suffice?”   And one woman who had worked at a dispenser’s office said, “Hearing aid manufactures charge $600-700 for a hearing aid yet the consumer is billed five to six thousand dollars”.  A practical comment from one man was that “People need to understand warranty vs. insurance.”

There were many comments and concerns, and the session ran over time. Consumer Reports would like to continue this conversation in the future. To wind up this session we were asked what consumer groups such as the HLAA could do to address some of these concerns. We turned in another group of sticky notes and and list was compiled:

– When possible do comparison shopping
– Have a checklist of questions
– Have mentors go with new buyers
– Write letters to manufacturers telling them what we want
– Negotiate bulk pricing
– Watchdog approach and consumer complaints
– Negotiate tax credits for hearing aids
– Negotiate Insurance coverage