Give UnitedHealthcare initiative a chance, says Hearing Loss Association of America leader

Brenda Battat

By David H. Kirkwood

BETHESDA, MD—America’s largest organization of hard-of-hearing consumers is offering encouragement to a controversial program that allows consumers to test their own hearing and purchase hearing aids directly without ever seeing a licensed hearing professional.

Writing on the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) web site,  Brenda Battat, the executive director of the 32-year-old advocacy group, noted that “the UnitedHealthcare hi HealthInnovations announcement has caused quite a stir.”

But despite the strong opposition from hearing care providers, Battat concludes:

“The program has been designed as a responsible alternative that in no way replaces the existing system, but has the potential to reach those who wouldn’t otherwise do anything or could not afford to do anything to treat their hearing loss. I think we should give it a chance and applaud UnitedHealthcare for identifying a pressing health need among America’s seniors and being bold enough to tackle it.”

HLAA’s position statement, which was posted on November 17, must have been warmly welcomed by UnitedHealthcare, a Minnetonka, MN-based health company, and hi HealthInnovations, the division of UHC that announced last month that it would sell hearing aids to consumers for less than $1000 apiece. Previously, public response to UHC’s program had been overwhelmingly negative, as has been reported in several past issues of this blog.

 

OPPOSITION CONTINUES

Among the professional organizations that have spoken against or expressed serious concerns about a distribution method that bypasses the licensed hearing care provider are the American Academy of Audiology, the International Hearing Society, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, and the Academy of Doctors of Audiology.

The Better Hearing Institute issued a warning to consumers on October 14 about “do-it-yourself hearing care” and advised of “the inherent risks associated with purchasing over-the-counter, one-size-fits-all hearing aids instead of consulting a hearing healthcare professional.”

At least two major hearing aid manufacturers have taken a stand against Internet sale of hearing aids, and at least one state agency, the Minnesota Department of Health, has raised a red flag about buying hearing aids online.

Meanwhile, the organization Boycott Internet Hearing Aid Sales <http://boycottinternethearingaidsales.com> has banded together individual  hearing healthcare professionals who believe that “the growing trend of Internet sales is  an industrywide crisis.” This group, which invites practitioners to join anonymously, states: It is our responsibility as medical professionals to look after our patients’ best interests, and it is our duty as colleagues to protect the future of the hearing healthcare industry.”

 

IHS RAISES LEGAL ISSUES

No organization has gone further than the International Hearing Society in trying to prevent direct-to-consumer distribution of hearing aids. Its legal counsel wrote last month to UHC, asking it to “immediately cease and desist the sale of hearing aids through the hi HealthInnovations website.”

The letter continued, “If you are unwilling to do so, we will have no choice but to pursue all legal remedies, including but not limited to filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, as well as pursuing action(s) at the State level for violating State licensing regulations and State consumer protection laws.”

In informing IHS members of this step, Kathleen Mennillo, the executive director, stated, “Our number one priority is to ensure consumer safety in the delivery of hearing aids and secure the critical role of the health professional in all sales of hearing aids.”

 

BATTAT: LET CONSUMERS DECIDE

However, despite the unified opposition to UHS’s approach from hearing professionals, HLAA’s leader see possible benefit to consumer. Battat, who wears a cochlear implant, wrote on her organization’s site:

“HLAA has always encouraged consumers to work closely with a hearing health care professional they trust as the best way to become a successful hearing aid user. But, let’s ask ourselves if this traditional approach is reaching most people who could benefit from hearing aids? We all know the answer is no…

“The hi HealthInnovations approach is new and untried… Is it going to work? Only time will tell. But let’s give it a chance and not sabotage it from the outset so that consumers can be the ultimate judges.”


5 Comments

  1. One thing to keep in mind is that many people have a long history of hearing loss that was already checked out. People who have been using hearing aids for a long time, who have already educated themselves a great deal, and who have stable hearing loss could potentially benefit a great deal from hearing aids sold at lower cost on the Internet.

    The current business model of assuming that customers will be in the same geographical area for years after purchasing a hearing aid does not accommodate the needs of people who travel frequently or who know they will move. I, for example, don’t want to pay thousands of dollars extra for a hearing aid that’s supposed to include the cost of follow-up services for years if I anticipate that I won’t be able to continue using the service of the dispensing professional or the clinic. I would much rather be able to buy a hearing aid at an affordable cost and pay for services from anyone I choose wherever I am.

    Dispensing professionals have the option of providing high-quality services on an as-needed fee basis for people who already have hearing aids from other sources. They don’t have to use only one business model. I’d like to see many more professionals focusing more on providing high-quality services—-but I’m afraid they don’t because they focus too much on selling hearing aids rather than comprehensive hearing health care services. There’s a tremendous need for much more comprehensive hearing health care.

  2. In response to Ms. Battat statement about giving United Healthcare UHC (and others) a chance by allowing them to ignore federal and state laws and sell hearing aids online. It is the pinnacle of irresponsibility to endorse any direct market solution disguised as trying to save the consumer money…PRICE IS NOT THE ISSUE.

    An affordable fully digital FDA registered hearing aid has been available from one of the leading manufacturers since early 2011. Nationally advertised at $750 tested, fit and adjusted by only licensed hearing professionals. Has this brought in the “Price Conscious ” patient? Absolutely not. The same company will virtually give away top line hearing aids to the low income population, has this driven those to the door of the licensed professional? NO. 0% interest financing is available to the vast majority of rest of the consuming public, this has not opened the flood gates either.

    According to Sergi Kochkin in an October 2005 interview with the Hearing Review HR “…, there appears to be one nagging question: Isn’t it just as reasonable to conclude that hearing-impaired people with higher incomes purchase hearing aids because they can afford them (ie, as opposed to the conclusion that untreated hearing loss causes people to have smaller incomes)?

    Kochkin First, when looking at MarkeTrak VII data, there is relatively even user adoption rates for each level of household income, with a total range of about 20%-28%. In fact, some of the low-income households have higher adoption rates than the high-income households. So, that might be one way of explaining why hearing aid affordability is not the issue here.” http://www.hearingreview.com/issues/articles/2005-10_03.asp

    So if affordability is not the real issue, for the majority, the claims of affordable hearing aids by UHC, and other online or direct to consumer operations are false. Thus, are they not just trying skirt Federal and state law to line their pockets by providing cheap low quality devices without professional intervention?

    Applause goes to IHS for taking a stand, they are becoming the leader of the national professional organizations. As far as I can determine IHS is the only organization that will accept all licensed professionals of the hearing health care team as full members. IHS is willing to do battle for the entire profession, every professional should support them with their membership dollars.

  3. I agree Kerry! How in the world can the HLAA support this? Yes, perhaps they will reach the population that cannot afford hearing aids, but how will these people that purchase these hearing aids be followed or have their hearing aids serviced or programmed? How many people with medical issue will be missed?

  4. I find Battat’s response very dissapointing and missleading to consumers. In my professional oppinion, consumers are not equiped and/or educated appropriately to be the “ultimate judge” of what is the best way to approach their hearing health care. Are the consumers going to be soon allowed to write their own perscriptions and self diagnose their healthcare? What if someone breaks their arm and decides the Xray is unnessary, so they just diagnose on their own that it is broken and go buy a splint over the counter? Are they qualified to make this decision for themselves? Is a medical physician going to approve of this? No way. There is much more that goes into hearing health care than simply putting a hearing aid on an ear, including proper equipment and education necessary to make the diagnosis of hearing loss. That is the major issue here and why our audiology community is in an uproar regarding UHC’s decision. There is no one universal hearing aid for everyone. What will they do if an earmold is needed. How will the hearing aid be set appropriately and what happens if the do not like the aid? They will blame all hearing aids as being terrible and a waste of “the below $1000.oo” they just spent per ear, giving our profession even a more difficult time in proper education to all consumers. I am greatly saddened that a hear loss assoiciation brought about to educate the hearing loss community has come out with such a bold endorsement of UHC’s new policy. :(

  5. All of this said, how would one know if there is a underlying issue, such as cholesteatoma or exostosis or any number of the other diseases of the ear with out seeing a professional?

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