UHC/hi HealthInnovations and professional groups discuss their differences

David Kirkwood
February 7, 2012

WASHINGTON, DC—Executives with United Healthcare (UHC) and its subsidiary, hi HealthInnovations, held a series of meetings last week with leaders of professional organizations that have been strongly critical of its newly introduced direct-to-consumer hearing aid distribution model

Since the beginning of January, the company has been selling hearing aids directly to consumers, without any involvement by qualified hearing professionals. The devices, which are priced at $749 and up, are fitted for individual purchasers on the basis of the results of an online hearing tested.

One meeting took place January 31 at the Capitol Hill office of the American Academy of Audiology (AAA). There, Lisa Tseng, MD, the chief executive officer of hi HealthInnovations, and colleagues from UHC sat down with elected and staff leaders from AAA and the Academy of Doctors of Audiology (ADA).



This meeting was prompted by a letter sent jointly to the company by Bruce Vircks, AuD, president of ADA, and AAA’s president, Therese Walden, AuD. In it they said:

“We are writing to you regarding the recent press releases stating that your group, will offer Medicare Advantage subscribers a new hearing benefit. Some of the marketing includes the phrases: ‘high quality hearing devices at a fraction of the retail price,’ ‘eliminates the middleman…eliminates the high markups,’ ‘custom programmed hearing devices…free online hearing test.’

“Although our respective groups admire the overarching goal to increase access to hearing healthcare for Medicare beneficiaries, we are compelled to contact you in the hopes that we might work with you on creating a more comprehensive and sustainable hearing health benefit. We believe that by working together, we can truly help the patients who subscribe to your plan to ensure that their individual hearing needs are assessed fully, safely, and competently and that the results are tailored in a scientific and proven manner.

They also wrote, “By excluding the health care services provided by the audiologist and the physician, you are doing a disservice to patients and this creates the potential for many dissatisfied subscribers to your services. Audiologists and physicians must be a part of a sustainable delivery model.”



According to a statement that appeared after the session on AAA’s web site and ADA’s site, the two audiology organizations “gleaned significant insight about the hi HealthInnovations hearing benefit business model from this comprehensive meeting. AAA and ADA were given an opportunity to present detailed questions and express the views of our membership. We are currently awaiting follow-up materials from UHC and continuing the dialogue among our respective organizations.”



AAA and ADA have not been alone in finding fault with UHC’s distribution model. The International Hearing Society, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), and the Better Hearing Institute all issued statements last fall opposing the sale of hearing aids without the participation of professionals.

During their visit to Washington, leaders of the Minneapolis-based UHC also met with representatives of ASHA and the American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery.

  1. It appears the only valid complaint about UHC’s model is it is inadequate at identifying patients with medical conditions that are treatable by a physician.

    If UHC agreed to include in the hearing aid price a hearing test by a licensed audiologist (who would be reimbursed for performing the service) for the sole purpose of determining whether a medically treatable condition exists, would professional groups then be satisfied UHC’s business model is adequate at protecting a patient and thus stop complaining?

  2. Even if it is a simple, correctable hearing loss, who will teach patients how to use the devices? Our clients need to know how to insert hearing aids properly, how to clean them and take care of them, how to change domes and wax caps if necessary, what troubleshooting steps to take if something goes wrong, reasonable expectations for hearing correction and many other questions. If devices are purchased online, there is no professional assistance. There is no substitute for a skilled and caring hearing healthcare practice.

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