Maybe you don’t need to pay a fortune for a hearing aid

Washington PostApril 28, 2014 

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. 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 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. 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 on TV. Asking people to speak up or increasing the volume didn’t always help. Sometimes it just made the muffled voices louder.

It’s not unusual for people in their 50s to begin noticing their hearing start to fade, but it’s far more common in older people. 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.

I resolved to get to the bottom of this worsening annoyance, and got an appointment with the Rockville, Md., hearing specialists who had treated my father.

After ruling out infection or injury, my audiologist, Jennifer Kincaid, concluded my hearing problem probably was age-related – the effect of decades of daily exposure to traffic sounds, construction noise and, yes, loud music. 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, I asked about repurposing my dad’s 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 them simply by plugging the aids into 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.

Insurance may not pay

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.

Even if your health insurance covers a hearing test, and even if a test shows you’re a good candidate for a hearing aid, don’t count on your insurer paying for one.

“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, Md. “Cost is clearly a barrier for a lot of people.”

The group offers advice on paying for hearing aids at www.hearingloss.org.

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