By David H. Kirkwood
WASHINGTON, DC—The International Hearing Society (IHS) turned its Fit to Serve campaign up a notch last week with the introduction of federal legislation that would authorize the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to hire hearing aid specialists to provide care for veterans with hearing loss, tinnitus, and related conditions.
IHS launched Fit to Serve in February on the premise that hearing aid specialists—who make up a majority of its membership—have the skills and qualifications needed to help the VA meet the spiraling demand on its Audiology and Speech Pathology Service to care for veterans with hearing problems. Currently, the VA relies almost entirely on audiologists, either those employed in VA medical centers or outside practitioners who work with the department on a contractual basis.
H.R. 3508, the bill that Congressmen Sean Duffy, a Wisconsin Republican, and Timothy Walz, a Democrat from Minnesota, introduced November 15 on IHS’s behalf would:
• Give the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) the ability to hire hearing aid specialists internally.
• Require the VA to report annually to Congress on appointment wait times and network provider utilization rates, which will raise awareness of the VA’s work to increase veterans’ access to local and timely hearing healthcare services.
• Direct the VA to update its contracting policies to reflect the new internal hiring classification for hearing aid specialists. (Currently, when the VA refers patients to outside contractors, it sends them only to audiologists.)
IMPROVING CARE FOR VETERANS
IHS’s announcement of the federal legislation, the first ever initiated by the 65-year-old association of hearing care providers, said that its intention is to ensure that America’s veterans have convenient, timely access to high-quality hearing healthcare.
IHS stated, “Despite the VA’s best efforts, the number of veterans in need of adequate hearing healthcare services is quickly surpassing the VA’s ability to adequately respond. Veterans often face long wait times for appointments, significant travel distances to the nearest VA clinic, and limited follow-up care.”
Largely as a result of U.S. soldiers’ exposure to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) during their service in Iraq and Afghanistan, the incidence of hearing loss and tinnitus among veterans of these recent conflicts is extraordinarily high.
IHS said, “The effect of hearing loss can be devastating to veterans, particularly as they adjust to a civilian lifestyle, and may contribute to depression, heightened stress, fatigue, and other challenges. For many veterans, a lack of proper hearing healthcare exacerbates these symptoms, leading to strained relationships and difficulties in maintaining a career.”
It continued, “Fit to Serve is working to lift existing restrictions to allow all qualified hearing aid specialists, alongside the hearing professionals of the VA, to [serve] America’s veterans. H.R. 3508 represents a major step forward in achieving these goals.”
Matthew Eversmann, First Sergeant (ret.), U.S. Army, and national honorary spokesperson for Fit to Serve, commented, “I can’t think of a better way to honor America’s veterans than by improving the healthcare that they have earned. Better hearing healthcare is a vital part of ensuring the quality of life of the men and women who have served our country.”
SPONSORS CITE NEED FOR THE BILL
The two lead sponsors of H.R. 3508 explained why it is needed.
Duffy said, “Veterans in my district are driving up to 90 miles one way just to get hearing services from an audiologist at the VA. These veterans could receive the same service from a local hearing instrument specialist, but under current law, the VA is only allowed to use audiologists.” Duffy added that passing the law would “provide greater freedom, flexibility, and more options for the men and women who have served our grateful nation.”
“Ensuring veterans are able to get the care and support they need at home should be a top priority,” said Walz, the highest ranking enlisted
soldier ever to serve in Congress, said. “Our bipartisan, common sense bill simply allows veterans to utilize hearing instrument specialists to get the care they need, which will reduce the burden on VA audiologists and improve the quality of life for veterans in need of care.”
The introduction of H.R. 3508 was the product of many months of work. IHS members held more than 100 meetings with members of Congress and their staffs. They also spoke with leaders of seven national veterans service organizations and with industry partners.
IHS, which is based in Livonia, MI, is now working to recruit co-sponsors for the legislation. It is also urging its members to spread word of H.R. 3508 “to colleagues and friends who want to see veterans get the hearing healthcare they deserve.”
On November 19 I left a telephone message and sent an e-mail to the VA Media room requesting a comment from the VA on H.R. 3508 and the Fit to Serve campaign. Thus far, I have received no response.