UnitedHealthcare hearing aid program unites hearing professionals—against it

By David H. Kirkwood

 TRENTON, NJ—The characteristically fragmented and fractious hearing healthcare field has suddenly found something to bring it together: the announcement by UnitedHealthcare (UHC), among other companies, that it will sell hearing aids directly to consumers without the involvement of licensed hearing professionals.

Since October 3, when hi HealthInnovations™, a division of UHC, began offering hearing aids retailing from $749 to $949, opposition—or at least strong concerns—have been voiced by all four of the country’s major professional organizations in hearing healthcare: the International Hearing Society (IHS), the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), the American Academy of Audiology (AAA), and the Academy of Doctors of Audiology (ADA).

Their shared concern has led to cooperation among organizations that are more often fighting together than working together. Currently, for example, ADA and ASHA are embroiled in litigation, while AAA and ASHA are at loggerheads over the accreditation of university audiology programs. IHS, whose members are predominantly hearing instrument specialists, has been battling with organized audiology over professional issues for more than 50 years.



But, as the old adage says, “politics makes strange bedfellows.” And the latest proof of that was demonstrated last week in New Jersey. There, the New Jersey Association of Hearing Health Professionals (NJAHHP), the New Jersey Academy of Audiology (NJAA), and the New Jersey Speech Language Hearing Association (NJSHA) have joined forces against the UHC hearing aid distribution model.

An October 31 statement from NJAHHP, primarily an association of hearing instrument specialists, reported that the three groups are “taking a strong stance against direct Internet sales of hearing aids to New Jersey consumers in the interest of protecting the quality, safety, and satisfaction in hearing healthcare that patients deserve and expect.”

David Weesner, a doctor of audiology who is president of NJAHHP, pointed to the critical role of audiologists and hearing instrument specialists in fitting hearing aids. He contended that “their personalized attention and clinical knowledge cannot be replaced by an automated and uncalibrated online hearing test that will no doubt yield unreliable results.”

Robert DiSogra, AuD, president of NJAA, which is affiliated with  AAA, said, “Hearing loss is a personal condition that deserves personalized attention and care from professionals that have the training and experience to assure that results meet patient expectation.”

Similarly, Robert W. Woods, PhD, chairperson of the Audiology Committee of the ASHA-affiliated NJSHA, added, “Experience tells us that patient satisfaction with hearing aid devices is directly related to comprehensive care from hearing specialists.”



Frequent adversaries are also allying on the national level. In a recent e-mail to ASHA members, Vic S. Gladstone, PhD, chief staff officer for audiology, wrote, “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 said that it plans to contact other organizations about this issue.

Meanwhile, two organizations that do usually see eye-to-eye have already begun working together on this issue. Therese Walden, AuD, and Bruce Vircks, AuD, the presidents of the American Academy of Audiology and the Academy of Doctors of Audiology, respectively, wrote joint letters to two executives at UHS: Lisa Tseng, MD, chief executive officer of hi Health Innovations and, Rhonda Medows, MD, chief medical officer and executive vice-president, United Health Group.

Walden and Vircks expressed concern over the company’s marketing language, which includes such phrases as “high quality hearing devices at a fraction of the retail price,” “eliminates the middleman,” and “custom programmed hearing device.”

The presidents of the two audiology academies went on to propose a cooperative relationship with the company. They stated, “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.”

In a message on the AAA web site, Walden told members, “The ultimate goal of the letter was to lay out a sustainable hearing benefit for UHC… to help them understand that audiologists are ready and willing to help them implement a best-practices model for their hearing benefit. We hope to hear from the leadership of UHC and hi HealthInnovations in order to get discussions going.”


Comment from Dr. Tseng

Hearinghealthmatters.org left a message yesterday (November 8) asking Tseng for her comment on the letter from the AAA and ADA leaders.

The physician, who wrote a Hearing View for this blog’s October 9 issue, replied, “We look forward to continuing to work with hearing health professionals to improve the lives of people with hearing loss in new and innovative ways, and continuing to comply with applicable federal and state requirements as we do so.”