Technological advances are making some medical devices like hearing aids more affordable.
US NEWS Money
By Susan Johnston
Thirty-seven and a half million Americans have trouble hearing, and of those people who could benefit from hearing aids, it's estimated that fewer than 30 percent have ever used them, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The hefty price tag attached to hearing aids may be chief among the barriers, as a pair of custom-fitted hearing aids can cost between $1,000 and $6,000, finds Consumer Reports.
Doctors sometimes charge a full 100 percent or more markup on hearing aids, says Sarah O'Leary, founder and CEO of ExHale Healthcare Advocates, a national independent consumer health care company. And, unfortunately, the cost of hearing aids and other medical devices is not always covered by insurance. Some insurers cover hearing tests, but not the device itself. In a handful of states, insurers are required (with some exceptions) to cover hearing aids for children and, in three states, they must cover them for both adults and children. Veterans may be entitled to free hearing aids through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
However, just as online startups have disrupted the traditional eyeglass industry and others, new players are providing more affordable channels for buying hearing aids, walkers, prosthetics and other medical devices. Buying a device from your local doctor or clinic may be a convenient option, but it's not your only option – nor is it typically the cheapest.
"The status quo of the hearing aid industry was that the only way you could hear again was going through the expensive brick-and-mortar channel," says Patrick Freuler, founder and CEO of Audicus.com, which aims to do for hearing aids what Warby Parker did for eyeglasses and 1-800 CONTACTS did for contact lenses. "The technological complexity of a hearing aid is not beyond modern cellphones, so we dug a bit deeper and saw that a lot of the pricing is driven by service components. We wanted to provide an alternative dispensing mechanism."
Audicus sells German-manufactured hearing aids for around $1,200 per pair, with a 45-day trial period. Like Warby Parker, where customers visit their doctor for an eye exam and send in their eyeglass prescription, Audicus has customers visit their local ear, nose and throat doctor or audiologist for a hearing test. Patients are entitled to a copy of their audiogram. "Send us the results of your hearing test [typically via fax or email], and then you receive a customized hearing aid in the mail a couple of days later," Freuler says.
Another player in the move toward lower-priced hearing aids is hi HealthInnovations, which is part of UnitedHealth Group, but sells its hearing aids to those with or without a UnitedHealth policy. As Lisa Tseng, CEO of hi HealthInnovations, describes it, "we're hearing-test agnostic. You can get your hearing test anywhere you want, and we custom program your hearing aids to your needs."