- Associated Press - Sunday, March 27, 2016

HARRISONBURG, Va. (AP) - Convinced there had to be a better way to provide effective, cost-efficient hearing care, Michael Combs and Jimmy Stewart put their heads together and came up with a testing center on wheels.

The hearing specialists launched Hearing at Home, a mobile hearing aid center, last month. The men regularly make house calls within a 60-mile radius of Harrisonburg and Charlottesville and will go beyond that range in some circumstances.

Combs, a Bridgewater resident and 25-year Shenandoah Valley resident, said the startup isn’t just one-of-a-kind in Virginia - it’s one of a handful of mobile-only hearing services he’s aware of in North America.

“When we started researching it,” he said, “we found somebody in Canada that does it and Arizona. There’s a few around.”

Combs said he and Stewart, who lives east of Charlottesville in Keswick, first considered establishing an office, but they found it added overhead that didn’t benefit patient care. They then went mobile, finding quality portable equipment and convincing hearing-aid manufacturers to trust their business model.

“So much is going on in home health care,” said Stewart, 52, “but this was a glaring, gaping hole with nothing happening.”

Both men said dollars - those charged patients, some of whom left without a hearing aid because they couldn’t afford it - were the impetus for their decision to abandon their jobs and create a new business.

“We were frustrated. We knew we wanted to do something different because of the rising cost of hearing care,” said Combs, 44, who was previously working at a big-box retail hearing center in Charlottesville during his non-compete period after leaving another hearing practice. “We wanted to offer better health care at a lesser price.”

The mobile service eliminates $80,000 to $100,000 in annual overhead, he said, and the savings are passed on to patients. In some cases, Hearing at Home has provided patients the same equipment for 45 percent less than brick-and-mortar offices.

“Both of us, frankly, were getting disgusted with the business model and raising of prices,” said Stewart, who left a private hearing practice in Charlottesville. “The focus came off patient care and just became sales.”

Combs, Hearing at Home’s CEO, and Stewart, its vice president and sales and marketing director, are its only employees. They answer calls when possible and allow clients to set appointments via their website, hearingathomeva.com.

Testing at home has advantages because adjustments can be made in a natural setting for patients, Combs said.

“As providers, when you’re trying to adjust hearing devices, you’re adjusting them to what their natural environment is. They want to hear their TV, hear their husband or wife,” he said. “The benefit of being in the home environment is that we can keep changing until we find a point that the patient can hear in that environment.”

Charlie Fuquay, a 65-year-old Lakewood resident who plays in bands and also makes and repairs guitars, said he found out he had a hearing problem when it became increasingly difficult to tune instruments and his bandmates told him he was singing off-key.

Combs met with Fuquay on March 15, and he now has a new hearing aid to experiment with in noisy rooms, which is when it was hardest for him to hear.

“I came to notice that (Combs) was very tenacious on making sure I was satisfied,” Fuquay said the next day. “He was willing to take the time to ferret out the hearing aids I needed to help my condition.”

Hearing at Home, Combs said, also repairs hearing aids, performs U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration tests for companies, and provides swimmer plugs, musician hearing devices, hearing-protection devices, tinnitus management and caption cellphones.

Patients are referred to physicians if a medical condition is discovered.

The men also have operated Hearing Hospice, which provides free hearing aids to hospice patients, for three years.

Combs said he and Stewart aren’t trying to put traditional hearing-aid companies out of business. They simply want to provide an affordable alternative so people can get the care they need.

“Patients should not have to pay those exorbitant prices,” he said. “They can get the exact same level of care for less cost.”

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Information from: Daily News-Record, http://www.dnronline.com

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