WASHINGTON, DC — United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) today introduced the Audiology Patient Choice Act, a bipartisan bill that ensures seniors and people with disabilities on Medicare have access to a full range of hearing and balance health care services provided by licensed audiologists.
A June 2016 report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine noted that hearing health care is “often expensive and underutilized by many of the people who need it.” Outdated Medicare rules contribute to this problem by creating unnecessary barriers to care for seniors with hearing loss.
According to a press release, Senator Warren said, “This bill will make a life changing difference for the millions of Americans who experience hearing loss but can’t access the care they need because of archaic regulations. I’m glad to work with Senator Paul on this common sense step to bring down costs for our seniors.”
“Our legislation gets government out of the decision-making process so Americans can seek treatment from audiologists more quickly, easily, and affordably. It proves Congress can come together across the aisle to find solutions to improve our health care system.” –Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.)
Approximately 48 million Americans experience hearing loss, including two-thirds of adults in their seventies. Despite the prevalence of hearing loss, a minority of Americans in their seventies have had a hearing test in the last four years and only about 14 percent of people with hearing loss use assistive hearing technologies.
Medicare already covers a range of hearing health services and audiologists are trained and licensed in all 50 states, all U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia to perform these services. However, Medicare currently does not recognize audiologists as providers of most hearing health-related services and will only allow reimbursement for a narrow set of tests to diagnose a hearing or balance disorder – and only if patients first obtain an order from a physician or nurse practitioner. These rules are far more restrictive than many private and federal insurance plans, even though there is evidence from a peer reviewed 2010 study that direct access to audiology would not pose a safety risk to Medicare beneficiaries complaining of hearing impairment.
In the 2010 study, Mayo Clinic audiologist David Zapala and colleagues concluded there was no convincing evidence that audiologists missed significant symptoms of otologic disease. This study, according to its’ authors, provided compelling evidence that audiologists referred to otolaryngology when appropriate. The aforementioned study can be accessed at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20701834.
Audiology Patient Choice Act: Improving Access to Hearing Healthcare
The Audiology Patient Choice Act intends to improve hearing health care for Medicare beneficiaries by allowing audiologists to provide all services already covered by Medicare that are also within an audiologist’s scope of practice.
The bill includes provisions that would implement the National Academies’ recommendation to allow audiologists to receive Medicare reimbursement for auditory rehabilitation services. The bill would also ensure that Medicare’s treatment of audiologists is consistent with the classification of other health care providers such as dentists, podiatrists, chiropractors, and optometrists.
The Audiology Patient Choice Act makes no changes to the scope of hearing health benefits covered by Medicare or the scope of practice of audiologists. The legislation is endorsed by the Academy of Doctors of Audiology and the Hearing Loss Association of America.
A companion bill was introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressmen Tom Rice (R-S.C.), Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) and Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.) last year.
The bill’s language can be viewed here.