Government, professional groups raise concerns about Internet hearing aid sales

Opposition is continuing to build to the sale of hearing aids directly to consumers via the Internet, which would bypass the role of the licensed hearing care professional. Two companies—hi HealthInnovations, part of UnitedHealth Group, and Audiotoniq—have announced plans to distribute hearing aids this way. Their products will be priced at under $1000, much less than the average price of hearing aids dispensed by audiologists and hearing instrument specialists.

Last month, the International Hearing Society, the Better Hearing Institute (BHI), and at least two hearing aid manufacturers—ReSound and Starkey–issued statements criticizing this method of distribution. They warned that hearing aid purchasers would be likely to suffer if they did not receive in-person care from a qualified professional. 

In his statement, Sergei Kochkin, PhD, executive director of BHI, said that being properly fitted with hearing aids today “requires a complete in-person hearing assessment in a sound booth; the training and skills of a credentialed hearing healthcare professional to prescriptively fit the hearing aids using sophisticated computer programs; and appropriate in-person follow-up and counseling.”

In the past week, as reported below, several more groups expressed their criticism of Internet sale of hearing aids. 

 

ASHA acts to protect audiologists’ role

ROCKVILLE, MD—In an e-mail to American Speech-Language-Hearing Association members, Vic S. Gladstone, PhD, ASHA’s chief staff officer for audiology, signaled that the professional organization of audiologists and speech-language-pathologists is aware of the new benefit offered by UnitedHealthcare (UHC), to provide hearing aids to consumers via the Internet.

In response to this development, said Gladstone in his October 27 message, ASHA “has convened an internal team consisting of Audiology Professional Practices, Health Care Economics, and Advocacy, and our federal and state advocacy teams to act on the comprehensive strategies being developed.”

He continued, “ASHA has identified various stakeholders and will be meeting with these groups to convey the message that patient safety is paramount and that audiologists must be included in the diagnosis of hearing loss as well as the fitting of hearing aids.”

ASHA, which has about 145,000 members, also plans to contact other organizations about this issue. Gladstone said, “We have reached out to UHC to ensure that we fully understand the details of the offering.”

 

ASHA SPELLS OUT OBJECTIVES

The ASHA executive added, “We intend to actively engage with other audiology organizations to develop a response that provides the following assurances:

•  “A letter will be sent to UHC that will outline a safe and effective hearing health-care delivery model for their participants.

•  “that audiologists and physicians are not bypassed in the hearing healthcare loop

•  “that consumers are effectively and safely served

• “that appropriate and necessary regulations are not bypassed by UHC’s efforts.”

Gladstone added that ASHA plans to work with other organizations “in crafting a coordinated response.”

AAA wants audiologists to be heard “loud and clear!”

RESTON, VA–While other audiology organizations and ASHA rarely work together on anything, the online sale of hearing aids may be an exception.

The American Academy of Audiology (AAA) has announced on its web site (www.audiology.org) that it will develop “a multipronged approach” to counter United Healthcare’s plan to provide online hearing tests and the Internet sale of hearing aids.

The board of the 11,000-member audiology organization met recently to discuss this issue and decided on the following course of action:

“A letter will be sent to UHC that will outline a safe and effective hearing health-care delivery model for their participants.

• “There will be continued outreach through the states to the licensure boards and other regulatory agencies to ensure consumer safety/protection is job one.

• “We will provide a listing of the online resources currently available to our members to help them educate consumers and their patients.”

AAA encouraged members “to work closely and stay in touch with the academy so we speak with a clear and collaborative voice. We will work closely with our allied associations and colleagues to ensure that our efforts are heard loud and clear!”

 

Health Department in Minnesota cautions consumers

ST. PAUL, MN—Meanwhile, the Minnesota Department of Health issued a news release on October 26 advising consumers to be cautious about purchasing hearing aids over the Internet. It also implied that this method of selling the devices may be illegal.

The agency stated, “Before hearing aids can be sold to consumers, [state and federal] laws require practitioners to inspect the consumer’s ears.”

The Health Department also emphasized that people who suspect they have a hearing loss should see a hearing professional rather than go online to have their hearing tested and to buy hearing aids.

 

A MINNESOTA MATTER

While the agency’s statement did not mention UnitedHealth Group by name, it may be more than a coincidence that the company, one of America’s largest health insurance providers, is headquartered in Minnesota. Thus, any ruling that its plan to sell hearing aids directly to wearers violated Minnesota law, would have a major effect on the company.

UnitedHealth Group promptly issued a statement of its own last Wednesday stating that its hearing aid program operates “in compliance with the applicable federal and state regulations.”

Don Nathan, a company spokesman, said, “We think the approach we’re taking is safe and consumer-friendly.”

While the Health Department’s press release may have worried UnitedHealth, it was probably welcomed by the traditional hearing industry, which has many of its largest companies based in Minnesota. Among them are Starkey and the North American division of ReSound, which both spoke out against Internet hearing aid sales.

 

Arizona committee wants AG to intercede

PHOENIX—Arizona’s Department of Health Services Advisory Committee for Speech-Language Pathologists, Audiologists, and Hearing Aid Dispensers added its voice to the growing chorus of  opposition from hearing care providers to Internet sale of hearing aids.

According to a member, the committee reached a unanimous agreement that the direct sale of hearing aids to the public without the involvement of a licensed dispenser was not in the consumer’s best interests. In addition, the committee agreed that Arizona’s attorney general should intercede on behalf of consumers and uphold the state’s licensure laws. The advisory committee will send a letter to that effect to the attorney general.

The advisory group consists of two physicians, two speech-language pathologists, two audiologists, two hearing aid dispensers, a member of the Arizona Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and a public or lay member.

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