Pete Couste said it was his wife who first noticed that he was turning up the TV louder than she liked.
“I couldn’t hear the words in movies as much anymore,” admitted Couste, who lives just outside Washington, DC.
Watching TV isn’t Couste’s only problem. In his church choir, he can’t always hear his part and get the pitch right. It’s also affected his work at the Fire Safety Research Institute, a nonprofit that generates safety research. The 61-year-old said he feels less effective judging audio quality when his team makes their life-saving videos for firefighters.
“It is affecting all parts of my life,” he said.
He saw an audiologist who said he needed hearing aids, but they would have cost him more than $6,000. “I thought, ‘Maybe this can wait,’ ” Couste said.
That was seven years ago.
The wait may be over for Couste and millions of other Americans. On Monday, for the first time, adults with mild to moderate hearing loss in the US will be able to buy over-the-counter hearing aids. Those who are under 18 or who have severe hearing loss will still need a prescription.
Help for millions
In July, President Joe Biden signed an executive order meant to promote competition; it encouraged the US Food and Drug Administration allow over-the-counter, prescription-free hearing aids, and the FDA announced the long-awaited rule change in August. The move ushers in options that should be cheaper and possibly even better.
Now, instead of getting a prescription and having a custom fitting with a hearing health professional, adults can buy hearing aids directly from a store or online. Some doctors estimate that 90% of the population with hearing loss could benefit from these over-the-counter devices.
Experts say the move is a “game-changer.”
“We’ve been working for years for affordable and accessible hearing health care,” said Barbara Kelley, executive director of the Hearing Loss Association of America. “We’re really looking forward to Monday.”
Couste is certainly not alone in forgoing hearing aids because they were too expensive, Kelley said. Only about 16% of the tens of millions of people with hearing loss use a hearing aid, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
The number of people with hearing loss is substantial. About 1 in 8 people in the US ages 12 and older has hearing loss in both ears, and the rate increases significantly with age. About a quarter of people 65 to 74 have hearing loss, and that goes up to 50% around age 75.
On average, people spend at least $4,000 out of pocket for devices for both ears, according to a 2020 study published in the medical journal JAMA. Prices can vary: Large retailers may offer a pair for about $1,400, but some can cost as much as $6,000 per ear, depending on the technology.
The FDA rule allowing for over-the-counter hearing aids didn’t change how the devices are covered. While private insurers pay for treatment after the loss of a limb or even cover the cost of Viagra, most do not cover hearing aids. Most Medicare plans won’t pay for them, either. Only about half of state Medicaid programs do.