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.
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.”