Texas families plead with lawmakers to improve access to hearing aids

When he wears his hearing aid, 6-year-old Coleman has normal hearing (Courtesy Amanda Brandeis)
When he wears his hearing aid, 6-year-old Coleman has normal hearing (Courtesy Amanda Brandeis)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Babies born in Texas are required to undergo a newborn hearing screening. It’s aimed at identifying hearing loss in children as early as possible to help them succeed later on in life. Hearing aids and other technologies can help prevent delays in vocabulary, communication and cognitive skills development.

After a diagnosis, many parents are surprised to learn that hearing aids and cochlear implants are rarely covered by insurance.

“When he was diagnosed it was a really crazy and scary and overwhelming time,” remembers Chelsea Murphy, a Lago Vista mother of three. “You have all these audiologists and ear, nose and throat doctors and therapists and teachers. Everybody telling you how critical it was going to be for him to get early intervention and to get his hearing aids as soon as possible.”

Her now 6-year-old son Coleman failed his newborn hearing screening test, and underwent several more tests after that. He was diagnosed with hearing loss and has the most difficulty hearing higher pitches.

When Coleman wears his hearing aids, his hearing is normal. Murphy says they cost around $5,000 and must be replaced every three years. There are also fitting fees, adjustments and an ear mold. Their insurance provider won’t cover any of it.

“It really bothered me that the state is so concerned about catching this early, that there’s the newborn screening that’s mandated and we care about that… but then there’s no follow through, no support once they’re diagnosed, it just doesn’t seem right,” said Murphy.

She joined the group Let Texas Hear and is advocating for two bills filed in the Texas Legislature. House Bill 490 and Senate Bill 552 have bipartisan support and would require insurance companies to provide coverage for children’s hearing aids, cochlear implant parts and accessories in Texas.

While hopeful, advocates say they can’t help but worry. Similar bills died in 2013 and 2015. 

The Texas Association of Business opposes the bill, and any others that mandate health benefits. In a 2015 memo sent to lawmakers opposing a similar hearing aid bill, they wrote expensive mandates to health benefit plans increases the costs for businesses and employers. They also assert that health benefit mandates more negatively impact small employer and individual policies.

Many Texas doctors support it, saying early intervention saves the state money in the long run.

Doctor of Audiology, Soriya Estes, says the bills are critical.

“Even a mild untreated hearing loss can cause significant speech, language and educational delays which in turn increase the need for special education support in our schools,” Estes said through email. “In grassroots community efforts and through our respective State Academy Associations, the ENT and Audiology communities in Texas are trying to stress to our legislators how vital it is to keep hearing healthcare coverage for children on their agendas in this current session.”

According to the Seminars in Hearing Journal from 1993, when children are not identified and do not receive early intervention, special education for a child with hearing loss costs schools an additional $420,000, and has a lifetime cost of approximately $1 million per person.

“These kids have just as much potential as any other child, they just need to be given access,” said Murphy.

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