There’s a lot of big stuff in the Biden administration’s executive order signed Friday aimed at ending anticompetitive practices: reining in Big Tech. Big banks. Big airlines and hospitals. But the order also takes aim at one very small thing, that a lot of Americans rely on — physically small, that is: hearing aids.
Just 14% of the 48 million Americans with hearing loss use them, according to the White House, partly because they’re so expensive. To change that, the Biden administration wants regulators to speed up efforts to allow over-the-counter sales.
Dominic Corriveau has struggled with hearing loss since he was a kid, but he couldn’t afford hearing aids. By the time he was 30, it was affecting his performance at work.
“The joke was I would always sit in the front, and I’m like because I’m a real go-getter,” he said. “But it was really because I wanted to hear what was going on.”
Finally, his employer bought him a pair.
“I believe it got me into more rooms, and more meetings, and was invited to more stuff. What I realized was there was so much that I missed,” Corriveau said.
Untreated hearing loss can lead to depression and accelerate cognitive decline. Still, most insurance doesn’t cover hearing aids, and the average cost is more than $5,000 for a pair.
“You’re buying the services of that professional. Your test, you’re screening, you’re fitting, the follow-up,” said Kate Carr, president of the Hearing Industries Association.
People with mild to moderate hearing loss don’t need all those services though, according to the Biden administration, and over-the-counter sales could open up competition.
Right now just four companies control almost 85% of the market.
Congress had already passed a law allowing over-the-counter sales of hearing aids. Friday’s order asks regulators to issue the rules to make that happen within 120 days.
The high-end audio company Bose just gained approval for prescription-free hearing aids for $850 apiece, said Roberta Clarke, emeritus professor at Boston University.
“That’s a huge difference in price,” she said.
But it won’t solve another challenge preventing some people from using them: stigma. And no president’s stroke of the pen can fix that.
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