Politics & Policy

Elizabeth Warren’s Deceptive Over-the-Counter Hearing-Aid Bill

(Reuters photo: Aaron P. Bernstein)
It pretends to help consumers but instead misleads them to help big business.

The ongoing debate over Obamacare repeal is the talk of the town in Washington, D.C. and across the country. But another, lesser-noticed health-care bill is rightfully generating plenty of controversy. The Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act, sponsored by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), would change the way Americans with hearing loss are treated, for the worse. Specifically, this bad piece of legislation would open the door for those suffering from this common ailment to receive inadequate diagnosis or treatment, leading to further health complications. With nearly 50 million people afflicted with hearing loss in this country, it’s important that we get this policy right.

How serious is this problem? According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Approximately one in three people between the ages of 65 and 74 has hearing loss and nearly half of those older than 75 have difficulty hearing.” The implications of untreated hearing loss affect every aspect of an individual’s life, from their social interactions with family and friends to their ability to work and have meaningful involvement in their communities and social groups to more serious implications, such as how they communicate with doctors and first responders in the case of an emergency.

The idea of making hearing aids available over the counter sounds great in theory — but that’s not what the Warren legislation does. Instead, it would direct the FDA to classify “personal sound amplification products” (PSAPs), which are already available over the counter, as medical devices and regulate them as conventional hearing aids. At present PSAPs are not treated as hearing aids because they come with no formal diagnosis from a medical professional; they are typically used to simply amplify sound for activities such as hunting and birdwatching.

Traditional hearing aids, on the other hand, treat hearing-loss conditions specific to each patient’s needs, as diagnosed by a licensed audiologist. The bill would not expand consumer access in any way, since PSAPs are already available over the counter for recreational use. All it would do is let PSAPs be marketed as hearing aids.

This is a great example of crony capitalism, in which an industry uses the government to create a new market for itself, regardless of the underlying policy rationale. This particular carve-out is especially egregious as it targets seniors, a population that is more susceptible than most to the fraudulent claims of marketers. Industry backers such as Bose are seeking stricter regulations on themselves because it will let them market their products directly to consumers, even though those consumers often need more than an off-the-shelf solution. Why are some Republicans going along with this big-government ploy to benefit big business?

The most important consequence of the OTC bill will be its negative impact on public health. As I’ve stated, hearing loss is a serious affliction with wide-ranging consequences. Among the documented consequences of untreated or mistreated hearing loss are social isolation, depression, and even dementia. It’s also very complex, with a variety of classifications for the type, severity, and cause of hearing loss. Simply put, it’s not something that can be self-diagnosed or self-treated. There’s a huge disconnect between knowing that one’s hearing is declining and understanding the cause and correct treatment.

The most important consequence of the OTC bill will be its negative impact on public health.

Many proponents of the OTC hearing-aid bill cite the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) as an endorser of over-the-counter hearing aids made available without an examination by a licensed audiologist. But just last month, NAS released a report that said, “Proper fitting and training are complex but necessary elements of maximizing performance among users of hearing devices. Consumers who work with providers trained in the use of properly prescribed and fitted hearing devices can expect better results than those who use off-the-shelf products.”

Put simply, hearing aids work when they are customized to a patient’s unique situation, not plucked off the shelf and stuck directly into a patient’s ear. Even the government body that is being cited by pro-OTC lawmakers says so!

As you would expect, Elizabeth Warren’s OTC hearing-aid bill isn’t really about free markets or consumer choice. It’s a big-government regulatory scheme designed to create new protected markets for companies such as Bose, which has its headquarters in Warren’s home state. To call PSAPs hearing aids and make them available to individuals with moderate hearing loss is a major mistake.

Congress should listen to the experts and preserve the doctor-patient relationship. Hearing loss is too important to put in the hands of Elizabeth Warren and her home-state lobbyists.

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