Lawmakers take third swing at expanding access to hearing aids

Lawmakers take third swing at expanding access to hearing aids

(Calif.) New bipartisan legislation introduced Tuesday would require health insurance plans to cover hearing aids for children.

Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica and lead author of AB 598, said that thousands of families–including those with health insurance–must pay the full cost of hearing aids out-of-pocket, which on average range between $1,500 and $4,000 per ear, and must be replaced every three to five years.

As a result, he said, many children throughout the state go without because families simply can’t afford it.

“We are here today because we believe that a child’s ability to hear should not be based on their family’s income,” Bloom said in a statement. “Yet here in California, thousands of families have to pay for their child’s hearing aids out of pocket. Some are forced to forego hearing aids altogether while others have to delay maintenance or replacements.”

Currently, all newborns receive a hearing status screening through the California Newborn Hearing Screening Program. Yet according to Bloom’s office, only one in every 10 children in privately funded plans has coverage for hearing aids and hearing aid services. This leaves more than 8,000 children enrolled in private plans without any kind of health insurance coverage for their devices if the screening finds them to be deaf or hard of hearing, his office found–a number that doesn’t reflect uninsured children or those on Medi-Cal.

Hearing aids are supposed to be replaced every few years on growing children, but because of the high costs, many families whose insurance coverage does not cover child hearing aids often have to postpone their child’s hearing aid maintenance, fittings, adjustments, or audiologist visits.

The California Health Benefits Review Program estimated that the changes called for in a previous version of the bill would increase the first-time use of hearing aids and services by 195 children in the privately funded insurance market alone in the first year.

AB 598–co-authored by Assemblymen Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, and James Gallagher, R-Yuba City–calls for any health care service plan contract or health insurance policy issued, amended or renewed on or after January 1, 2020, to include coverage for hearing aids for those under the age of 18.

Advocates for children who are deaf or hard of hearing have noted that providing access, especially early on, to hearing aids is also an issue of educational equity.

Kids who received hearing amplification services between the ages of three to six months had better listening and spoken language skills than those who had received such services at 2 years old, according to a 2017 study from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Researchers found that deaf or hard of hearing children often benefit the most from multi-sensory approaches to learning that incorporate both visual and spoken language. Without access to hearing aids, however, children may be deprived of an important tool for language development.

Bloom introduced nearly identical bills in both 2016 and 2017 but neither made it to the governor’s desk.

In both cases, organizations that advocate to improve children’s health and education outcomes wrote in support of the bill. Meanwhile, both the California Association of Health Plans and America’s Health Insurance Plans opposed the bill, arguing that the state must assume the cost of any mandate in excess of the essential health benefits package, and that the bill would drive up the cost of premiums.

According to Bloom’s office, California currently lags behind the more than twenty other states that currently require insurance coverage for children’s hearing aids.  

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