A bill sponsored by Rep. Tina Orwall (D-Kent) would improve Washingtonians’ access to hearing devices by requiring health plans to provide coverage for them.
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Members of the Senate Health and Long Term Care Committee discussed House Bill 1222 during a public hearing on Tuesday. The bill would require non-grandfathered, large group health plans to provide coverage for hearing instruments. It would also modify requirements for hearing instrument coverage for plans offered to public employees, and require the insurance commissioner to include hearing instruments in any updated essential health benefits benchmark plan upon authorization from the legislature.
Orwall said about 15% of all adults and about one out of every 1,000 children have some hearing loss.
“And when people suffer hearing loss, it can affect their ability to connect,” Orwall said. “It can lead to isolation, depression, and anxiety. We know for children, it can impact their ability to learn. They can fall behind one to four grade levels. But the good news is, once they have access to treatment they can rebound. We want everyone to have access to these devices.”
Cynthia Stewart, legislative liaison for the Hearing Loss Association of Washington, said her parents had health insurance when she was young, but hearing aids weren’t covered under their plan.
“As a child with severe hearing loss without hearing aids, I was confused, depressed, and isolated because I could not understand much of what was going on around me,” Stewart said. “Getting through college was a huge challenge. Hearing the lectures and taking notes while trying to lip read was a nightmare.”
When Stewart was finally able to purchase hearing aids, they were not covered under her insurance plan, she said.
“I’ve had to take out loans and could not replace my hearing aids with the recommended rates, waiting up to 10 years at times for financial reasons,” she said. “This bill will make a huge difference in people’s lives, and save system costs by allowing people who cannot afford hearing aids to be able to have them.”
Dr. Doug Sladen, an audiologist, professor, and chair of the Department for Communication Sciences and Disorders at Western Washington University, testified in support of HB 1222. He said early childhood hearing loss has devastating consequences on spoken language development, leading to lifelong difficulties with psychosocial skills, social acceptance, mental health, academics, and future job opportunities.
“Adult onset hearing loss is the third most common chronic condition in the US, and leads to social isolation, depression, decrease in physical health, and loss of employment,” Sladen added. “Access to hearing aids will help [people] avoid many of the profound consequences of hearing loss, and result in cost savings to insurance providers since patients will have improved social connections, well-being, and overall health.”
Jane Beyer, senior policy advisor at the Office of the Insurance Commissioner (OIC), also testified in support of the bill, which was a rare position for the OIC.
“I think this is one of the only mandated bills that OIC has ever testified pro on,” Beyer said. “We’ve been working with Rep. Orwall and this awesome group of advocates on this issue for about five years.”
The legislature directed the OIC to do an actuarial analysis on what it would cost to provide insurance coverage for hearing instruments in 2021, Beyer said. The analysis found that it would cost about 36 cents per member, per month, she said.
HB 1222 was passed in the House on Feb. 28th. The Senate did not vote on the bill on Tuesday, but it is scheduled for an executive session on Thursday.