Currently, under consideration by the U.S. Congress and Biden administration is legislation that would expand the Medicare health insurance program to include hearing aid coverage. Included as a provision in the $3.5 trillion federal budget proposal, this action not only would modernize Medicare, it would make a significant positive impact on the lives of millions of Americans.

At its launch in 1965, Medicare did not include a vital health care need by failing to cover hearing aids. Since then, seniors and others suffering from hearing loss have had to pay out of pocket for health care that offers incontrovertible benefits.

When an individual starts to lose their hearing, the effects are serious. A study from the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that, when compared to people with normal hearing, people aged 70 and older with hearing loss are:

— 36% more likely to have prolonged stretches of illness or injury;

— 32% more likely to have been admitted to a hospital;

— 57% more likely to have deep episodes of stress or depression.

Research from Johns Hopkins and the National Institute on Aging also found that older Americans with hearing loss are significantly more likely to develop dementia over time than those without hearing difficulties.

While generations of seniors relying on Medicare have had to bear the cost of hearing aids, lawmakers in Washington, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, now have the opportunity to address this failing and make a major difference in the lives of Vermont’s senior citizens by recognizing hearing aids as an essential part of American health care. We appreciate Sen. Sanders’ leadership in this area and encourage him and his colleagues to not only make this long overdue change, but to do so in a way that will actually benefit Vermont seniors. If an expanded Medicare includes hearing aid coverage, seniors in Vermont must be able to access all providers of care, including hearing aid specialists. If lawmakers’ goal is to provide a real hearing aid benefit under Medicare, the benefit will only be only meaningful if seniors can use it.

Hearing aid specialists are trained, licensed health care professionals, providing half of all hearing aids to the public, including seniors. As health care professionals, our jobs are fulfilling because every day, we get to improve seniors’ quality of life. In Vermont, more than two dozen hearing aid specialists provide care not only in their office practices, but in assisted and independent living communities, nursing homes and home visits.

Hearing aid specialists comprise about half of hearing aid providers nationally. If an expanded Medicare program relied only on audiologists and excluded hearing aid specialists, seniors seeking hearing examinations and hearing aids under Medicare would have their points of access cut in half. Preventing hearing aid specialists from providing care under Medicare would mean that seniors in Vermont will face longer wait times for appointments and greater travel distances to receive care. Unfortunately, some seniors may choose to go without, compromising not only their quality of life, but also their health and safety.

Hearing is a vital part of our lives and hearing aids offer seniors the ability to communicate with dignity, connect with their loved ones, and experience the world around them. For thousands of Vermont seniors, professionally-fit hearing aids offer vital health and safety benefits. However, for decades, seniors in our state have been denied a hearing aid benefit that is affordable and accessible. With the leadership of Senator Sanders and his colleagues in Washington, the 50-year wait may soon be over.

Robert Saylor is a hearing aid specialist from Stowe.

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