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Cheaper, sleeker over-the-counter hearing aids are on the way

Millions of Americans with mild-to-moderate hearing loss may soon be able to buy high-quality — and cheaper — hearing aids at their local drugstore.

That's because the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday issued long-awaited draft rules for selling such hearing aid devices over the counter, in addition to what the agency calls "sound amplification" products. Now that the proposed rules are out, it could take about a year for new hearing aids to hit the market, according to experts.

"The new regulatory category will provide the public with greater control over their hearing aid purchasing decisions at stores nationwide or online without the need for a professional hearing exam, fitting adjustment or a prescription," Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock said in a statement.

When the agency issues final rules, experts hope it will spur competition among consumer electronics companies for a global hearing aid market that some estimate should jump 40% to $11.6 billion by 2028. Currently, the segment is dominated by a handful of specialty device makers.

Bose sells an $850 hearing design cleared by the FDA for direct-to-consumer sales. Bose

"These over-the-counter devices should cost $200 to $800. And they'll be produced by companies like Bose, Samsung and maybe Apple," said Dr. Justin Golub, an ear specialist at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, before the draft rules were issued. "These are the really innovative companies that always compete to drive costs down, constantly innovate and prove value. So we're pretty excited about this."

Affects 40 million adults 

Nearly 40 million American adults suffer from some form of hearing loss, according to the National Institutes of Health. That can also lead to other problems, including depression, social isolation and even dementia, researchers have found.

Yet most insurance — including most forms of Medicaid and traditional Medicare — doesn't cover hearing aids, which require a prescription. Some people are too embarrassed to wear what's historically been a clunky design. Fewer than 30% of people who need hearing aids actually wear them, said Dr. Hope Lanter, the head audiologist at healthcare services provider, even when it seems like everyone these days has a device in their ears compared to even a decade ago. 

Adding "the flashy, sex-appeal version of some of the companies that will put their stamp on these things" will help, Lanter said. "Even though some of our most major manufacturers are out there doing extremely amazing jobs with hearing technologies, we still don't necessarily have that stamp from some of the bigger players that some people might find to be a little bit more attractive," she said.

Costco, through its Kirkland brand, sells hearing aids for about $1,400.

At about a $2,500 out-of-pocket cost on average — high-end devices can run over $8,000 — most adults can't afford hearing aids. And 14% of adults would be pushed below the federal poverty level if they spent the money, according to one estimate.

Popular brands reduce stigma

Less expensive hearing aids by known brands are currently available. Bose has an $850 self-fitting hearing aid cleared by the FDA for direct-to-consumer sales and available for purchase online. Apple in 2013 began including Bluetooth software for its iPhone that is compatible with hearing aids and offers other hearing-oriented device features, including dampeners and amplification. Costco, through its Kirkland brand, sells hearing aids for about $1400.

Tech companies are betting that sleeker designs and over-the-counter sales will help eliminate stigmas of ageism and expand the market, said Brian Maguire, who leads Bose Hear.

"Over time, we believe truly, with greater accessibility and more people wearing hearing aids at lower prices, they just become more palatable," Maguire told CBS MoneyWatch in an August interview. "Today, they're viewed almost as a prosthetic as opposed to a desirable consumer object. And we believe that could change."

Pandemic's impact on kids in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community 04:46

Maguire and others point to reading glasses as an example of a similar shift.

"You don't look at someone who's wearing glasses or readers the same way you might with a hearing aid," he said, but believes hearing aids will soon shake that stigma. "We believe that when they become more accessible over time, over the generations, they certainly will," he said. 

Like reading glasses for vision

Consumers shouldn't confuse devices called personal sound-amplification products, available from various retailers, with hearing aids. These so-called PSAPs are marketed to people with unimpaired hearing as sound amplifiers in noisy settings like restaurants, according to the Hearing Industries Association, an industry group. They cost up to about $500, and the FDA prohibits retailers from marketing them as hearing aids. Changes under the draft rule seek to clarify the difference between a PSAP and over the counter hearing aid products.

Meanwhile, many people with hearing loss require more sophisticated hearing aids, experts note. Over-the-counter tech — much like reading glasses for vision — won't address severe hearing loss or specific needs.

"Over-the-counter hearing aids are only going to be for adults with perceived mild to moderate hearing loss — and they will self-diagnose, self-fit," said Barbara Kelley, executive director of the Hearing Loss Association of America. "For more severe hearing loss, you still have to go through the process and end up in the good care of either an audiologist or a hearing aid specialist."

The FDA, its hands full with the COVID-19 health crisis, missed its August 2020 deadline to propose rules for selling hearing aids over the counter under the 2017 law. President Joe Biden in July signed an executive order nudging the agency to finish draft rules within 120 days. 

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