Over-the-counter hearing aids start at $199

Starting Monday, October 17, thousands of consumers will be able to buy hearing aids directly from stores and at dramatically lower prices as the 2017 federal law goes into effect.

For decades, these devices could only be purchased with a prescription and cost thousands of dollars. Now, a new category of over-the-counter headphones will start at $199, the price Walmart says it will sell them at.

Over-the-counter hearing aids are aimed at adults with mild to moderate hearing loss, a market of millions, many of whom until now have been unable to afford them due to cost.

“From a conceptual standpoint, it’s very important that this is finally happening,” said Dr. Frank Lin, director of the Johns Hopkins University Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health in Baltimore.

Lin predicted that the new market could take a few years to adjust, as manufacturers and retailers get used to selling these devices and consumers become familiar with the new options.

Hearing care experts say they’re happy to see lower prices. Lin said he believes they will continue to decline over the next two years as more competitors enter the market.

Prices and features of new over-the-counter hearing aids will vary just like prescription hearing aids. A pair of prescription devices typically sells for between $2,000 and $8,000. Some of the more expensive technologies are available in newer over-the-counter options.

Over-the-counter hearing aids are slightly less expensive because they do not include the services of a specialist for hearing evaluation, fitting, and device tuning. Instead, new devices must be configured by customers, although manufacturers will provide technical support via apps and phones.

Some other new companies have entered the market including Sony. It will sell its lowest-priced self-adjusting hearing aid for $999 at Best Buy and other retailers.

Walmart said it will offer a variety of over-the-counter hearing aids, some priced from $199 to $299 made by HearX, an affiliate company based in South Africa that also makes the Lexie devices.

The devices will initially be available at Walmart stores in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas. But the company hopes to make them available across the country soon.

Walgreens will offer Lexie Lumen OTC hearing aids for $799 per pair. Deals at Walgreens, CVS, Best Buy and Walmart will also include a Lexi hearing aid developed in partnership with Bose.

Costco, one of the largest sellers of prescription hearing aids, has not disclosed whether it will offer any without a prescription.

De Wet Swanepoel, co-founder of HearX, said its over-the-counter Lexi Lumen hearing aid will allow consumers to program it according to their needs. Others of these devices will offer pre-programmed settings.

“There are a lot of products on the market and there’s a lot of learning for consumers to know what the differences are between the devices,” he said.

A doctor can also advise which of the new hearing aids is more suitable for the patient. Medicare and most health insurers cover routine hearing tests. But Medicare and private plans do not cover the cost of hearing aids, although many Medicare Advantage plans do.

Consumers can also take a hearing test online or through an app on their phone or computer, Lin said.

Another factor that could increase the demand for new devices is the declining stigma of wearing headphones as people often use headphones to listen to music.

More than 37 million American adults have hearing loss, and federal health officials estimate that only 1 in 4 people who could benefit from a hearing aid have used one.

The hearing aid industry has largely avoided price competition due to consolidation among manufacturers and extensive state licensing laws for sales through speech pathologists or other hearing professionals.

Due to decades of complaints about the high cost of hearing aids, in 2017 Congress directed the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to establish rules that would allow over-the-counter sales in hopes of increasing competition and lowering prices.

The pandemic delayed the process and the new rules were finally announced two months ago.

Doctors, who could lose business, warned that the new category would not help people with severe hearing loss. And too much loud noise can damage hearing, says Sarah Siedlowski, former president of the American Academy of Audiology.

The entity has published a guide on these new hearing aids on its website

nevertheless, Nicholas Reed, an audiologist and assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the devices are probably less dangerous than listening to loud music on headphones. New hearing aids require a safe maximum audio level to help protect consumers’ hearing.

New devices will be clearly labeled as FDA-approved, said Tom Powers, a hearing aid industry consultant in New Jersey. These differ from affordable personal devices that amplify sound but do not address other components of hearing loss such as distortion.

Reid recommends looking for over-the-counter hearing aids with generous return policies, no longer than one month. Consumers should use a device for a few weeks to see how it performs. If one brand doesn’t work, they should try another.

The change may be necessary because it is unclear whether consumers will receive in-store assistance in selecting hearing aids without an audiologist. Some stores plan to provide assistance. Walmart said it will include helpful information on its website.

Nancy M. Williams, president of Auditory Insight, a hearing health care management consulting firm, said he reviewed eight over-the-counter hearing aids ranging from $499 to $1,299.

Some look like headphones or are almost invisible. The ones it reviewed had limited or no Bluetooth connectivity, a feature that allows users to customize devices, and only half had rechargeable batteries.

But all eight allow the wearer to adjust them based on their hearing test results. He recommends that people try at least three over-the-counter devices to see which one works best for them.

Barbara Kelly, executive director of the American Hearing Loss Association, said consumers should choose their timing. “This is all going to be a little confusing,” he said. But he added that the new options will lead to more people getting help with their hearing. “The benefits outweigh the risks,” he opined.

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