Don’t let veto kill bill to help Mainers with hearing loss

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Hearing loss is a common challenge that can have a profoundly negative effect on an individual’s life. It can lead to increased stress and isolation and, over time, impact memory and learning, job performance and relationships. Despite its serious nature, too many Mainers with hearing loss can’t get the help they need.

That’s why I was proud to cosponsor and support my friend and colleague Rep. Jim Handy’s bill to help more Mainers get help from their insurance companies when they need hearing aids. The measure earned strong bipartisan support from lawmakers, but a veto by the governor has put our efforts on behalf of Maine’s hearing impaired at risk.

Hearing loss impacts tens of thousands of Mainers – maybe including you or somebody you love. In fact, some 65,000 Mainers are thought to suffer from some degree of hearing loss, which puts our state among those with the highest proportion of citizens who are hearing impaired.

According to AARP, nearly 95 percent of people with the most common type of hearing loss can be helped by hearing aids. Research shows that these individuals see improvements in both their physical health and emotional well-being when they are able to take advantage of effective treatment options.

But the fact is that many impacted Mainers just don’t have the resources to pay for hearing aids out of their own pockets. Hearing aids can cost thousands of dollars each, an enormous expense for most Maine families. Their price tag puts them especially out of the reach of those on fixed incomes, like many older people.

Tougher still, most insurance policies don’t help cover the cost of hearing aids for adults. Even when people have coverage that can help diagnose hearing loss, it rarely helps them get hearing aids to overcome it.

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Rep. Handy’s bill directs insurance plans to provide coverage for at least $3,000 per hearing aid to individuals with documented hearing loss. The measure earned the support of organizations like AARP Maine, Seniors Plus and Disability Rights Maine. They recognize the importance of expanding access to hearing aids as well as the lack of resources compared to the need.

Access to hearing aids can allow those with hearing loss to better participate in the workforce, increasing productivity and even making workplaces safer. At its public hearing, the state’s Department of Labor, which provides services for deaf and hearing impaired individuals, took no position on the measure but highlighted the critical nature of treating hearing loss to keep people in the workforce.

As the department’s spokeswoman pointed out, allowing individuals with hearing loss to succeed on the job is not only a priority for Maine families but also for employers as our state’s economy struggles to meet its workforce needs.

The bill earned unanimous approval from the 13-member bipartisan Insurance and Financial Services Committee, on which I serve, and the support of both the House and the Senate. It was funded by the budget-writing committee, a significant hurdle.

When it reached the governor’s desk, though, he vetoed it. Now its fate is uncertain.

Hearing loss is a medical condition, and its proven, effective treatment should be a covered by health insurance plans. But without passing LD 192 into law, access to hearing aids will remain out of reach for too many. Lawmakers should override the governor’s veto so more Mainers with hearing loss can access the medical devices they need and deserve.

Rep. Heidi Brooks is serving her second term in the Maine House. She is a member of the Insurance and Financial Services Committee and represents part of Lewiston.

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