- - Tuesday, June 26, 2018

With all of the debate and discussion about health care policy this year, it is important that we take a step back and remember that sometimes the easiest and most impactful improvements we can make to our health care system are sitting right in front of us. Today, Medicare provides quality health coverage to millions of seniors across the country, and the program is as American as baseball or apple pie. Yet, many would be shocked to learn that the program does not cover care for the entire senior population and many gaps remain, including coverage for hearing aids.

When taking John to a doctor appointment, a senior shared his desperation in losing his hearing and not being able to afford his hearing aid. I was shocked to learn that Medicare does not cover the cost of hearing aids, which leaves millions of seniors at a loss to pay for often-expensive services that are crucial to maintaining a healthy, independent lifestyle.

That is why I led efforts in Congress to allow Medicare to cover hearing aids and exams with the introduction of the Medicare Hearing Aid Coverage Act. Having a hearing aid isn’t a luxury that should only be available to a select few; it is a quality-of-life issue that has a significant impact on cognitive health and by covering it could reduce health care costs in the long run.

More than 9 million American seniors suffer from hearing loss, which is the third most prevalent chronic health condition facing older adults. But more than 70 percent of all older Americans who need a hearing aid do not get one, mostly because they cannot afford it. Hearing loss can lead to frustration, embarrassment, social isolation and increased safety risks for things such as inability to hear oncoming cars, smoke alarms or the phone ringing.

No one should feel isolated, confused or shut out from the world because they cannot afford the treatment they need. A study by the National Council on Aging found that those with untreated hearing loss were more likely to experience depression, anxiety, paranoia and were less likely to participate in organized social activities compared with those who wear hearing aids.

And now, a growing number of studies have shown a link between hearing loss and increased hospitalization, depression and cognitive decline. A 10-year longitudinal study of patients in Baltimore found that those with hearing loss had a higher probability of developing dementia, with the probability rising as the severity of the hearing loss increased. Dr. Frank Lin of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that as the brain becomes smaller with age, the shrinkage seems to be accelerated in older adults with hearing loss.

The relationship between hearing loss and the development of dementia is “convincing and striking,” according to researchers. We have to take heed of these warnings. The time to act is now.

It is time for Medicare to cover treatments for the whole senior and not just bits and pieces. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

We must start this conversation now. With 10,000 people turning 65 every day, it is essential that the next wave of seniors who enter the Medicare program have the benefits they need to ensure they live healthy and productive lives well into the future. Having good hearing coverage is part of that, and expanding Medicare to cover the cost of hearing aids should be something we all can support.

Rep. Debbie Dingell, Michigan Democrat, serves on the House Energy & Commerce Committee, where she works to grow manufacturing, improve access to quality affordable health care, support seniors and veterans and protect the Great Lakes.

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