Aug 2017 Sentinel & Enterprise

Hearing-loss specialists are assessing the impact a new federal law creating over-the-counter access to hearing aids will have not only on their businesses but on their patients. Audiologists are concerned people with hearing loss won't receive the same services and support an expert provides. "I think of it like having great restaurants but also selling microwavable food. Sure, you can do it yourself with the microwave, but it's not at all going to be the same quality and service," said Dr. Katie Harrington, and audiologist with Chelmsford Hearing Group. Harrington noted that hearing loss is sometimes created by an underlying disease that would otherwise go undetected if a patient simply purchased a hearing aid without consulting a doctor first.

The federal OTC Hearing Aid Act, co-sponsored by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, was signed into law by President Donald Trump on Aug. 18 and is expected to increase the accessibility of devices used to treat mild to moderate hearing loss. The new law aims to benefit Americans with the kind of hearing loss typically experienced in old age, according to Warren. "Allowing hearing aids to be sold over the counter will help bring down the costs and expand consumer choices so that millions more Americans can find affordable hearing aids," she said after reintroducing the bill in March.

Anthony Wasiuk, who owns Medical Arts Hearing Instruments in Leominster, is not a supporter of the OTC Hearing Aid Act. "I don't think anyone's really panicking. I do think people are concerned, and I don't think anybody really knows what's going to happen," said Wasiuk, a hearing instrument specialist. Opponents say the law puts audiology businesses -- previously the only place you could buy hearing aids -- at risk by providing an alternative purchasing option, although Wasiuk is taking a wait-and-see approach.

Despite being concerned that patients won't be getting the same attention, Harrington said the bill at least will be helpful in getting more hearing aids to those who need them. "It could also be a way to get more people in to see us. I think the patients who want the best care will continue coming in here," she said. Though the new devices will only be for people experiencing milder hearing loss, Wasiuk explained that all of his clients, regardless of the severity of their condition, will meet with him on a regular basis for four to six weeks after their first appointment. "We make sure it's fitting properly, they know how to use it, and a lot of times we have to reprogram it based on the person's lifestyle and tolerance for sound," he said. "It's a process, and as great as the hearing aids are today there's still a process of going through that fitting.” Even after a fitting is completed, clients will continue to visit Wasiuk's office over the following months and years for adjustments, cleanings and repairs. "I don't know if you're going to get many people who are able to take things out of the box and just have them work. And maybe you will. Maybe it will all change and people could easily do it, but right now there's still that process," he said.

Though Westminster resident Michael Bradley's moderate to severe hearing loss means the devices covered by the new law wouldn't help him, he would be willing to buy his hearing aids over the counter if that were possible. "I wish they would make an option for all, as my latest set I've had for three years was extremely expensive," he said. Bradley's most recent of hearing aids about $10,000. Though he hopes that he could eventually buy a cheaper alternative, he said he would continue to consult an audiologist. "Depending on how high you set the volume for your hearing they can damage your hearing more," he said. "My first set of digital hearing aids took me over six months to get to a volume I was comfortable with."

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