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More Utahns can access hearing aids now that they're available over the counter

A person with a beard wears a hearing aid.
Mark Paton

Over-the-counter hearing aids were recently made available to consumers without a prescription. That’s a big shift in hearing technology policy.

So how will this change affect the price, quality and risk of using hearing aids?

Dr. Tiffany Shelton, a clinical audiology professor at Utah State University’s Hearing and Balance Clinic, said it's important to note that over-the-counter hearing aids are not for everyone.

“It’s just for those who have perceived mild to moderate hearing loss. And it's not for children, not for anybody that may have a ringing, they call it tinnitus, or tinnitus in your ears, or have any type of pain or discomfort or discharge," Shelton said. "So it's mainly just for those who may have that natural hearing loss that occurs over time.”

The Utah Assistive Technology Program (UATP) at USU offers financing options to people who wish to purchase hearing aids — or any other technology, from wheelchairs to communication devices — anything that might help them function more independently. But while the loans could pay for many different types of technology, most go to hearing aids.

“About 90% of the total loans that we do through our program are hearing aid loans," said Shelly Wood, who coordinates UATP’s financing programs, speaking of the loans processed over the last three months. The organization offers reduced-interest loans to people who need hearing aids but would like some help with the interest rate.

“The average cost of a pair of hearing aids is around $4,600, so they are pretty expensive," Wood explained.

UATP also offers small grants of up to $500, for those who fit the income guidelines. Until recently, people who could not afford hearing aids usually could not take advantage of the small grants. Now, that may change.

“There may be a little bit of effect on prescriptive hearing aid costs, but more than likely … the more people to jump on board to develop over the counter hearing aids will probably bring the price down," Shelton said.

“You know, sometimes, as we do, when we get older, we get a little bit more of a hearing loss and it happens slowly and we tend to accommodate for it," Shelton added. "And when we think, 'Oh, I've got to pay $4,000 or $5,000 for a pair of hearing aids, well, I'll just adjust. I'll just try to make it on my own.'”

Research shows that neglecting your hearing has serious health consequences.

“Especially with the research that's being done, proving that cognition, noted reduced dementia and depression and other difficulties, wearing devices is very important," Shelton explained.

But are the new over-the-counter devices safe?

The short answer is yes—because under the new FDA regulations, manufacturers have to follow safety requirements before they can put the words “hearing aids” on their packaging.

“They've reduced how deep that can go, so it doesn't do damage within the ear," Shelton said. "So they've made some rules to help make it safer.”

Editor's Note: JoLynne Lyon is an employee of the Institute for Disability Research, Policy & Practice.