COVID-19 Update: With social distancing and stay-at-home orders, many seniors are struggling with loneliness and isolation. We’ve developed a list of products that caregivers or seniors can purchase to help older adults stay happy, healthy and connected, whether they are aging in place at home or in an assisted living community.

Costs for hearing aids vary, depending on factors such as materials, technology and features. A higher grade of materials makes them more expensive, but they are designed to last longer and yield better results. Some hearing aid manufacturers offer optional upgrades that improve performance, but upgrades add to the price. Premium hearing aids can run more than $6,000, while more affordable brands are less than $500. 

Because Medicare and most private health insurance companies don’t cover hearing aids, many hearing-loss sufferers find the high price prohibitive. In addition to the costs of the hearing aids themselves, there are associated costs, including an office visit and hearing test. A specialist, such as an audiologist or an ENT, usually conducts the hearing test, so the patient often needs to visit their primary care physician for a referral to begin the process.

Why Hearing Aids Are Expensive

Hearing aids don’t just turn up overall volume levels like a volume knob on a stereo. They work more like an equalizer with the ability to turn up particular frequencies. In addition to this fundamental function, optional upgrades include:

  • Directional microphones
  • Bluetooth connectivity
  • Digital noise reduction
  • Adaptive feedback cancellation
  • Telecoil
  • Rechargeable

Many patients upgrade their hearing aids periodically because there are frequently improvements in hearing aid technology. People with hearing loss benefit from improved technologies, but some of these technological advancements may add to the price.

Why You Need an Office Visit to Buy Hearing Aids

Most patients with hearing loss are interested in hearing aids because they can’t hear the audio they want to hear, such as conversations, but don’t want unwanted sounds boosted as well. Some background noises, like the crinkling of paper, are irritating if they sound louder. A hearing health professional conducts hearing tests to determine which frequencies to boost. Once the hearing aids are programmed, the patient tests them in the office to ensure they are set up correctly. In addition to calibrating the frequencies, the specialist also adjusts the fit of the hearing aid to ensure that it’s more secure and less noticeable.

Types of Hearing Aids

A hearing care professional helps determine which type of hearing aid is best for particular hearing loss. There are three main types of hearing aids:

  • Behind the ear (BTE)
  • Receiver in canal (RIC)
  • In the ear (ITE)

The further the device goes into the ear canal, the more they are subject to degradation caused by wax buildup that can lead to replacement.

Hearing aids also may be monaural, meaning in only one ear, or binaural, in both ears. They are also available as both digital and analog. Contact your primary care doctor or your insurance company to find out if your insurance covers the office visit and hearing tests for hearing aids if they don’t provide coverage for the device itself. A specialist can provide an expert opinion on what type of hearing aid is right for you 

Are Hearing Amplifiers Hearing Aids?

You may find inexpensive devices online called “hearing amplifiers” that look a lot like hearing aids. These devices are personal sound amplifying products (PSAPs) designed for hunting and other situations where people without hearing loss may want sound amplified. They are not FDA-approved hearing aids. People suffering from hearing loss usually won’t find them helpful because they boost distracting background noises along with human speech. People with mild hearing loss might want to use them in situations without excessive environmental sounds. Some audiologists do have PSAPs available for patients who would benefit from them, and they’re an affordable option for some when beneficial.

What About OTC Hearing Aids?

In 2017, Congress passed the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act, which lets people with mild-to-moderate hearing loss purchase affordable FDA-regulated hearing aids over the counter without a prescription. OTC hearing aids are not the same as PSAPs. The Act gave the FDA three years to create a class of regulated over-the-counter hearing aids for patients who don’t have hearing loss severe enough to warrant an evaluation by a hearing health care professional, but, as of August 2020, the FDA has not completed this task.

Contact your primary care physician for updates on the status of this regulation and whether your hearing loss is mild enough to benefit from OTC hearing aids. If your insurance covers a hearing test, your doctor may be able to advise you about their benefits once OTC hearing aids are available in your area, based on the results of the test. OTC hearing aids would be a significantly less expensive option for those with mild to moderate hearing loss.