Hearing-Aid Bill Bad Idea

The government has an abysmal track record of overseeing health care lately, with the failures of Obamacare and the ongoing effort to repeal it dominating the news. Sadly, it’s no surprise that another bad health care idea is moving through Congress, this time led by Elizabeth Warren. Her newest legislation would empower the federal government to slap more regulations on hearing aids and disrupt the doctor-patient relationship in the hearing loss category, leading to higher out-of-pocket costs and poorer health outcomes.

The “Over the Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017” sounds good at first. Judging by its name, one would think the bill increases consumer choice and access to hearing aids. But like most policies coming out of Washington, D.C., the devil is in the details.

Sen. Warren’s legislation does two things: It instructs the Food and Drug Administration to create a new regulatory category for personal sound amplification devices (PSAPs), treating them as medical devices for the first time, and it pre-empts states’ rights to govern hearing health as they see fit.

The new FDA regulations on PSAPs are particularly problematic. These devices are already available to consumers over the counter at a variety of pharmacies and electronics stores. PSAPs are used to amplify sound, but not to treat hearing loss; their most common applications are for recreational activities like birdwatching and hunting.

But Sen. Warren wants them to be treated like medical devices, under the purview of D.C. regulators. Manufacturers of these recreational products are supporting her bill, because government recognition of PSAPs as medical devices will allow them to market them to people with serious hearing deficiencies that should be treated by doctors.

The problem is, actual hearing aids are highly personalized, based on the type and severity of a patient’s hearing loss. Audiologists preform extensive testing to understand what is causing a person’s hearing loss, as well as the seriousness of the problem. A hearing aid is then prescribed and customized based on each individual case. PSAPs, on the other hand, simply amplify sound. They are a one-sized-fits-all “solution,” with no doctors involved in the process at all.

The other issue with the Warren bill is it takes power out of the hands of states and returns it the federal government. Currently, states approach hearing health differently, with a variety of policies governing things like the dispensing of hearing aids, special licensure for audiologists and hearing screening requirements. The ability for West Virginia to craft policies that are best for its citizens would be destroyed, should this bill become law.

West Virginia has more than 47,000 adults with a hearing disability — the highest percentage in the country. Any laws made in Washington affecting auditory health will have a major impact here at home. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Warren and the D.C. bureaucrats she seeks to empower are unlikely to create health care policies that prioritize West Virginians.

The OTC hearing aid bill is up for a key vote in the House Energy and Commerce Committee this week; our own Rep. David McKinley sits on that committee and has a vote on this bill. We can only hope he not only votes against this legislation, but encourages his fellow committee members to do so as well.

Let’s keep Elizabeth Warren’s hands off our health care and maintain the right to make our own policies on hearing aids — not allow a payoff to big corporations to get in the way of the doctor-patient relationship.

Storch, of Wheeling, is a Republican member of the West Virginia House of Delegates. She has represented District 3 since 2011. She also is president of the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce.