Ohio lawmakers want insurance companies to cover hearing aids

By Jim Siegel - The Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ellie Warren was diagnosed with hearing loss before her fourth birthday, and the junior at Hilliard Davidson said her first pair of hearing aids cost about $2,500.

Insurance paid nothing.

She also has three siblings, and two of them also have hearing loss. The cost for her family, including audiology visits, ear molds and batteries, she said, can exceed $13,000 a year because her father’s insurance, like many Ohio workers’, consider hearing aids to be cosmetic or not medically necessary.

“I use my hearing aids almost every moment I’m awake,” Warren, 16, said Thursday. “Access to sound is access to my community, my school, my employers and hopefully one day my patients.”

Warren, who hopes to become a doctor, and others spoke in favor of House Bill 243, which would require health insurance plans in Ohio to cover $2,500 per hearing aid over four years for those age 21 and under. Supporters of the bill say too few insurance providers cover hearing aids, so families are left trying to pay for devices that can cost up to $6,000.

According to the Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 23 states, including Kentucky, require hearing aid insurance coverage for children, and five of them also require coverage for adults.

Rep. Casey Weinstein, D-Hudson, a prime sponsor of the bill, said Gov. Mike DeWine told him at a recent legislative breakfast that he supported the proposal. DeWine spokesman Dan Tierney would not comment specifically on the conversation but said, “The governor, as you know, is very supportive of children’s issues.”

Carrie Spangler, an educational audiologist with the Summit Educational Service Center, said hearing is the foundation for reading, writing and academic success.

“In Ohio, many families experience significant hardship to provide that basic right of hearing to their children,” she said. “We know, statistically, that without hearing aids and intervention these kids can fall behind with spoken language, academic performance, and it can impact their overall life function.”

Without a hearing aid, the cost of intervention can exceed $400,000 over a child’s educational career, Spangler said.

Those cost savings will be among the key arguments in support of the bill, said Rep. Allison Russo, D-Upper Arlington, a prime sponsor who will try to push the issue through a Republican-controlled legislature that is often reluctant to pass insurance mandates.

“Besides a moral interest, we also have an invested financial interest,” Russo said. “Having those conversations with our colleagues, we have found them to be very respective of that.”

The bill has 21 co-sponsors, including three Republicans. The legislature has approved some insurance mandates in the past, such as requiring coverage for treatment of autism-spectrum disorders in 2016.

Chris Ferruso of the National Federation of Independent Businesses/Ohio, said, like with other mandate proposals, the concern is about the impact on premiums. Weinstein estimated the cost at about 15 cents per insured person.

Ferruso said the bill also doesn’t appear to impact public employees, and larger, self-insured companies are generally exempt from state insurance mandates.

“If there’s a public health crisis, and I’m not here to say there is not, shouldn’t the solution be to find coverage for all Ohioans, not just a select subset?” he said.

The bill is named “Madeline’s Law” for Madeline Rohlin, a young girl from Shaker Heights who was diagnosed with hearing loss at age 2. Her mother, Nadia Greenhalgh-Stanley, said “it was a big shock to find out we’re going to have to pay $4,000 out of pocket for Madeline’s hearing aids.”

Geenhalgh-Stanley, a professor at Kent State University, recalled how she was crying while talking to the insurance company. “I asked them, ‘What 2-year-old would wear a hearing aid as a cosmetic device?’”

The insurance company treated it the same as Botox, which she called “shocking and appalling.”

By Jim Siegel

The Columbus Dispatch

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