Are You Eligible for Free or Discounted Hearing Aids?
While hearing aids can certainly improve a senior's quality of life, many people can’t afford them. But there are multiple ways that many of us could acquire free hearing aids. In this video, audiologist Brad Ingrao explains the different ways Americans could get hearing aids at no charge or with a discount. If you suffer from hearing loss, you can watch the video with captioning, or enjoy the transcript of the video below.
Free Hearing Aids Video Transcript
Jeff Hoyt: Hi. I'm Jeff Hoyt, Editor-in-Chief of SeniorLiving.org. A hearing aid can make a huge difference in quality of life for someone losing their hearing. Unfortunately, they can make a huge difference in your savings as well, costing thousands of dollars, making them unaffordable for many. The good news is that some of us are eligible to get free hearing aids. How? I asked audiologist Brad Ingrao to explain the different ways Americans could get hearing aids at no charge. You can find a link to a transcript of this video within the video itself and in the YouTube description below. Because of social distancing, I will be conducting the interview with Brad Ingrao via Zoom.
Jeff Hoyt (via Zoom): Hi. It's Jeff Hoyt, Editor-in-Chief of SeniorLiving.org, and once again I have the pleasure of speaking with Brad Ingrao, an audiologist. And Brad and I today are going to discuss how you can actually get hearing aids free of charge. Hey, Brad how are you?
Brad Ingrao, AuD: I'm doing well, Jeff. Thanks for inviting me back. It's a really important topic and we'll cover it the best we can.
Jeff Hoyt: Great. So what routes are there that somebody could possibly get hearing aids for free? They're a life-changer, but they can be very expensive. So the thought of getting them for free is certainly enticing. How would one go about exploring one's options?
Brad Ingrao, AuD: Sure. Well, probably the best option in terms of the most comprehensive services and products that can be provided at no cost to the end-user is the Veterans Health Administration, so anybody who served our country. And there's some limitations. You have to have had 18 months of service, that sort of thing. You no longer have to have what's called a “service connection” for hearing. But if you qualify for general VA healthcare, which you find out by going to your local VA with your discharge papers, your insurance information, and some financial information, they'll let you know right away are you eligible for VA healthcare. At that point, if you are, you're immediately eligible for hearing aids. And these are from the top six manufacturers. These are international companies, the premium-level products only. So, you're not looking at, you know, low-level stuff. And if you need additional technology, they cover that, and they even cover cochlear implants. So that's sort of the… if you had to have a Cadillac of no-cost hearing healthcare, it's the Veterans Health Administration.
In most states, you can also obtain good quality hearing aids, also from those same manufacturers, maybe one or two levels down in the technology range, from Medicaid. And Medicaid is available for a variety of populations. Usually, we think of Medicaid for people who are very low income. But there are some stipulations where you can get Medicaid coverage, and sometimes just limited Medicaid coverage, for things like hearing aids if you're elderly or have some health issues. So, if you're struggling to pay for hearing aids, it would be worth your while to investigate what are the qualifications for your state for Medicaid, either general Medicaid or sort of a special, special needs, one-time kind of deal.
Unfortunately, a lot of seniors these days are forced to continue to work well past what we used to think of as retirement age. And if you're still working, also every state has something called the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. If you're trying to have a part-time job, or even a full-time job, to make ends meet, and you have a hearing loss, that hearing loss is significantly going to impair your ability to be gainfully employed. So, the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation can often assist. And it's, again, one of those things where you're not signing up for general health care but you're asking for some very specific assistance. What they'll generally provide for you if you qualify is a comprehensive audiologic evaluation that they'll cover the cost of, hearing aids, and some assistive technology if you need a remote microphone or something like that. So, again, not everybody's going to qualify.
There are certain restrictions in terms of income and how much you're working, but certainly worth spending some time. When I say, “checking it out,” you know, if you spend a week with all of these different agencies we're going to talk about, that's about how much time you need to invest to possibly save five to seven thousand dollars. So, it's worth the investment in your time.
And then finally, for folks that don't qualify for any of those, there are several private foundations that have been established specifically to help people who can't afford hearing aids. Everybody knows hearing aids are expensive, and so a variety of mechanisms exist. I'm reticent to say well you go here, here, here, and here, because literally, the kind of stuff changes every day. What doesn't change is a central repository for information about hearing loss, and that's the Hearing Loss Association of America. HearingLoss.org maintains an updated list of these foundations that offer assistance, sometimes completely, and sometimes incomplete assistance to get hearing aids. If you qualify for those, it's a grant. It's not a loan. And essentially, you can get hearing aids. Usually, these foundations are at least supported by, if not wholly-owned by, those major manufacturers. So again, you're getting high-quality hearing aids. You're not getting some off-brand thing. And it's part of that, your investment in time in investigating that. So, that's a good… I think that's a quick overview of what's available in terms of, “I can't put any dollars down at all.”
Jeff Hoyt: Great. So, you mentioned Medicaid. What about Medicare?
Brad Ingrao, AuD: Medicare. Well, that's a really interesting one. So, Medicare will cover, and we're talking about traditional part B Medicare, not an add-on service. But traditional Medicare will, in fact, cover hearing evaluation. But only if it's for medical purposes, not for the purpose of getting a hearing aid, because hearing aids are specifically excluded from Medicare. Because of that, any services tied to hearing aids are also excluded. What that really means is, you can go to your primary care doctor and say, “Look, I think my hearing's not what it used to be,” and he can write you a referral to come see me for an audiologic evaluation. If he writes on the referral, “He needs hearing aids,” then they're not going to pay for it. So that's a little kind of a loophole. But once you have that evaluation, Medicare, traditional Medicare, does not currently pay anything towards hearing aids. There are some bills in the works to try to alleviate that and again, HearingLoss.org, the Hearing Loss Association of America, is actively involved in that. And they have updates on their website on a regular basis. I'm hopeful that it will, in fact, kind of get worked out because that's a really important part of getting older in a healthy way. And so, hopefully, we'll get there. Right now, we're simply not there.
Jeff Hoyt: And what about Medicare Advantage plans? Could they offer a free hearing aid for certain patients?
Brad Ingrao, AuD: There are a few — Medicare Advantage is sort of a blanket term for a lot of different ways that you can get supplemental coverage to your Medicare, and you have to really carefully shop. Some of them will provide a complete benefit for a very specific catalog of products. Most of them will provide a certain amount of money toward hearing aids, and they usually cycle anywhere between one and five years. And finally, some private insurances do also provide some coverage. The key with all of those, whether it's Medicare Advantage or Blue Cross Blue Shield, is it's very individualized to your particular plan. So I always recommend, call the number on the back of your card and say, “What is my hearing aid benefit?” That's the magic phrase. They'll give you all the details of what's available, how much, what's the product cycle, and are there any restrictions on where you can get that and still claim your benefit?
Jeff Hoyt: So, it's possible you could get free hearing aids through private insurance or Medicare Advantage depending on your plan, but they may say you have to go to this particular provider?
Brad Ingrao, AuD: Absolutely, yep. And it's kind of on the rare side, but they're out there. And particularly, if you work for the federal government or an industry that has a very strong union, you may very well have a significant benefit.
Jeff Hoyt: Great. Well, this has been a big help. Thank you for telling our viewers what question they should ask so they can find out what their insurance, whether private or public, what it covers. And I really appreciate you taking the time.
Brad Ingrao, AuD: Sure. My pleasure. And I'm always happy to help and let's get more people helping their hearing, and we'll all be healthier and healthier.