By David H. Kirkwood
WASHINGTON, DC—In what has become a biennial ritual, the Hearing Aid Assistance Tax Credit Act was once again introduced in the U.S. Senate last week. The measure, S. 1694, introduced on November 13 by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), calls for a non-refundable $500 tax credit for the purchase of a hearing aid, or $1000 if two are needed, once every five years.
S. 1694 is essentially the same as the bill introduced in the Senate in 2011 and very similar to H.R. 1317, which Reps. Tom Latham (R-IA) and Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) introduced in the House of Representatives on March 31. It now has 24 sponsors.
SUPPORTED BY CONSUMERS, PRACTITIONERS, AND MANUFACTURERS
For more than a decade, a coalition of organizations that advocate for better hearing health care in the U.S. has been campaigning for passage of the Hearing Aid Assistance Tax Credit Act. The legislation is not intended to cover the full cost of hearing aids, but rather to provide some measure of financial assistance to those who need the devices but are unable or unwilling to buy them without a tax credit.
The Hearing Industries Association (HIA), the trade association of manufacturers of hearing aids and related products, has been a driving force behind this effort from the beginning. On the consumer side the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) has also lobbied actively over the years for the tax credit.
Earlier in 2013, HIA and HLAA members joined forces in Washington at HIA’s biennial Hearing on the Hill. There they met with more than 80 Senators, Representatives, and staffers, seeking their support for the legislation. Joining them were delegations from several professional organizations, including the International Hearing Society, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), the American Academy of Audiology, and the Academy of Doctors of Audiology.
A SLOW PROCESS
Despite the unanimous support of hearing care advocates and the long list of Representatives and Senators from across the political spectrum who have co-sponsored hearing aid tax credit legislation, the bill has never come close to passage—or even to being voted on. The problem is not that there is opposition to it, but rather that in the midst of the thousands of bills introduced every year and the countless issues facing Congress, it’s difficult to get legislators to pay attention to this one.
That’s why ever since the tax credit initiative was launched, Andy Bopp, now HIA’s executive director, has been saying that the key to success would be to get the hearing aid tax credit included in a broader tax measure. Therefore, says Bopp, who was director of governmental relations at HIA for a decade, the tax credit’s best chance for enactment will come when Congress takes up tax reform.
The good news is that both houses of Congress and the President agree that tax reform is desperately needed. The bad news is that there is no agreement on what form that reform should take. And, with the Republicans in control of the house and the Democrats holding a majority in the Senate, chances seem slim that any meaningful legislation will be passed before the mid-term elections in November 2014.
Nevertheless, Bopp urges advocates for the bill to persevere. He explains, “We need to keep reminding Congress that this bill is important to people.” The more legislators are aware of the issue, the more likely it is that whenever a tax reform bill is finally drafted that the hearing aid tax credit will be part of it.
MAKING THE CASE
In a press release announcing the introduction of S. 1694, HIA laid out some of the arguments for its passage. Noting that hearing loss is among America’s most prevalent birth defects, it said that enactment of the bill would be “a significant step in ensuring that children and adults with hearing loss are able to obtain the hearing aids they need.”
HIA continued, “When left unaddressed, hearing loss interferes with virtually every aspect of a person’s life. For children, it affects important social, emotional, and academic development. For adults, it interferes not only with their ability to communicate and interact with others, but it affects their experiences on the job, as well as their earnings, risk of depression, and quality of life.”
Yet, the trade association pointed out, hearing loss is one of the most common—and most commonly neglected–health conditions in America today. Even though the vast majority of people with hearing loss can benefit from hearing aids, only about a quarter of the nearly 40 million Americans with hearing loss use hearing aids.
A major reason for the underutilization of hearing aids is their cost, which for most people is not covered by third-party payers. Surveys of non-users have found that as many as two-thirds of them cite financial constraints as a core reason they do not use hearing aids. That’s not surprising given that a third of those with hearing loss have annual incomes under $30,000. These people, advocates for the Hearing Aid Assistance Tax Credit Act say, would benefit from its passage.
ASHA also issued a statement urging members to ask their representatives in Washington to support the tax credit. Further information is available on its web site.