Lawmakers may mandate insurance coverage for hearing aids

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AUGUSTA — Lawmakers were listening when a Lewiston legislator proposed that insurance provide coverage for hearing aids.

The Insurance and Financial Affairs Committee this week gave its unanimous backing to the bill by Rep. Jim Handy, D-Lewiston, that would require insurers pay up to $3,000 per hearing aid for those who need them.

“That’s very good news for so many Mainers,” Handy said.

But the measure may face obstacles given opposition from insurance companies and the business community that worry that state mandates on what has to be covered by health insurance could push up the already burdensome cost of health care.

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The bill would extend mandated hearing aid coverage to all ages — currently those 18 and under are covered for up to $1,400 per hearing aid — and raise the coverage for each ear to $3,000 every 36 months.

Handy said experts figure it will cost less than 47 cents per month per policy to provide the new coverage, a figure he called “a good investment.”

Katherine Pelletreau, executive director of the Maine Association of Health Plans, said the cost embedded into premiums paid by policyholders is likely to be higher.

More worrisome, though, is that mandating new coverage at a time when health care plans may change would remove “flexibility in designing products more aligned with consumer needs,” she said.

Rep. Heidi Brooks, a Lewiston Democrat on the committee, said members found the arguments for including hearing aids persuasive, citing the example of one resident with hearing loss who pointed out she could get cochlear implant surgery that puts a device inside the ear at great cost but not hearing aids that might do the trick much more cheaply.

Besides, Brooks said, it doesn’t make sense why some ailments are covered but hearing loss isn’t.

With an aging population, there’s likely to be a growing demand for hearing aids.

The state Labor Department anticipates dealing with “an increase in Baby Boomer-generation workers experiencing hearing loss” that may make it hard for them to remain employed, said Julie Rabinowitz, director of the department’s policy, operations and communication.

“Insurance coverage is not keeping pace with what we are discovering about the impact of hearing loss on an individual’s health,” Handy said.

“If there was a pill that was approved for use that could help prevent these conditions, there’s no way it wouldn’t be covered by insurance,” he said, adding that many people can’t afford to shell out as much $6,000 for a pair of hearing aids.”

“This should be a covered medical expense,” Handy said.

Peter Gore, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce’s vice president for advocacy, said businesses are sympathetic to the need but are already “struggling to meet health care premium costs today.”

“These costs are in the face of other rising costs, such as higher wage and hour costs in the form of minimum wage increases, and the specter of a 3 percent surtax narrowly approved by the voters in November of last year, that will impact thousands of Maine small employers,” he told the committee.

He said even well-intentioned new benefit mandates “serve no purpose if they push health insurance premiums beyond the reach of either the employer or the employee.”

Betsy Sawyer-Manter, chief executive officer of the Lewiston-based SeniorsPlus, said that only one in five people who would benefit from a hearing aid actually uses one, often because they are too expensive.

She told legislators that one of her lingering memories of her mother-in-law was her inability to follow the ebb and flow of conversation. “What was that you said, dear?” was a common question from her, Sawyer-Manter said.

She said her family was able to buy the much-needed hearing aid, but many cannot. She urged the Legislature to back Handy’s bill.

“Hearing loss is not just an older adult issue,” Sawyer-Manter said. “lt is critical to give people the tools they need to live full and productive lives.”

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