Over-the-counter hearing aids here soon
Millions of Americans will be able to buy hearing aids without a prescription later this fall, under a long-awaited Food and Drug Administration rule finalized in August.
The regulation creates a new class of hearing aids that don’t require a medical exam, a prescription and other specialty evaluations, the FDA said.
That’s expected to increase competition and eventually lower costs. The devices will be sold online or over-the-counter at pharmacies and other retail stores.
For mild-to-moderate loss
The devices are intended for adults with mild to moderate hearing problems. The FDA estimates that nearly 30 million adults could potentially benefit from a hearing aid, though only about one-fifth of people with hearing problems currently use one.
“[This] action by the FDA represents a significant milestone in making hearing aids more cost-effective and accessible,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.
The FDA first proposed the rule last year, and it will take effect in mid-October. The move follows years of pressure from medical experts and consumer advocates to make the devices cheaper and easier to get.
The new over-the-counter status won’t apply to devices for more severe hearing loss, which will remain prescription only.
Should be more affordable
Cost is a big obstacle now. Americans can pay more than $5,000 for a pair of state-of-the-art hearing aids, between the device and professional fitting services.
Medical exams and fittings account for about two-thirds of hearing aids’ cost, according to Kate Carr, president of the Hearing Industries Association, which represents manufacturers.
Insurance coverage is limited, and Medicare doesn’t pay for hearing aids, only diagnostic tests.
“The requirement to see a specialist was not only a burden and an annoyance for many consumers, but it actually created a competitive barrier to entry,” said Brian Deese, a White House economics adviser.
Deese cited government estimates that Americans could eventually save as much as $2,800 per pair. But FDA officials cautioned against predicting the size of savings or how quickly they might arrive, noting much will depend on when manufacturers launch products and how they price them.
New products expected
FDA officials said they expect to see increased competition from new manufacturers as well as new products from existing hearing aid makers.
Five companies make most of the devices sold in the U.S., Carr noted, though about 80 companies are registered with FDA to market the products.
“Given that this has been discussed for five years now, I suspect businesses have had the opportunity to think about their plans and prepare for this,” Carr said.
Consumer electronic companies for years have produced lower-cost “personal sound amplification” devices, but they do not undergo FDA review; and U.S. regulations bar them from being marketed as hearing aids.
The FDA said it changed several parts of its initial proposal in response to public comments, including clarifying how the rule will impact state regulations.
The Aug. 16 announcement follows prodding from medical committees and Congress, which in 2017 instructed the agency to lay out a plan for over-the-counter hearing devices.