Hearing Care: Final Piece in the Benefits Package
Reproduced with permission from Benefits Magazine, Volume 48, No. 10, October 2011, pages 40-43, published by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (www.ifebp.org), Brookfield, Wis. All rights reserved. Statements or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or positions of the International Foundation, its officers, directors or staff. No further transmission or electronic distribution of this material is permitted.
“Hearing loss isn’t just an “old-age” problem; children and adults of all ages are at risk of hearing problems that can affect job performance. Employers now have more options for offering a hearing care benefit.”
by | Mike Reha, CEBS, and Dru Coleman
Most workplaces offer employees some type of medical health plan and/or other ancillary products such as vision, dental, disability or life insurance. But health care benefits aimed at preserving and maintaining the sense of hearing have generally been ignored. Hearing insurance has never been part of a traditional employee benefit package…
Hearing now stands where vision did when vision plans were first created 30-40 years ago. At that time, neither employers nor employees were asking for a vision benefit. It was accepted at all levels only after a consistent, standardized approach to vision care was developed.
Over time, vision became more of an accepted and even expected benefit. This expectation led to the demand for vision care. (And spectacle wearers have since gone from geek to chic status as eyewear is now regarded as both functional and fashionable.)
Most people take hearing for granted until they experience hearing challenges. Generally, we adjust our lifestyle by increasing the volume on the television and radio, or if we are engaged in a conversation with other individuals and don’t hear them, we ask them to repeat themselves. The majority of hearing loss occurs over a period of time, unannounced; it is gradual, painless and invisible to others.
But hearing loss can significantly affect a person’s mental and psychological well-being. People who suffer from hearing loss have a much higher incidence of depression, withdrawal, stress, negativism and reduced job performance. The only treatment accommodation for 90% of these cases is hearing aids.
Unlike other ancillary benefits such as dental or vision, whose benefactors have taken an active role in promoting preventive care, hearing tends to be more of a reactive benefit. In a typical scenario, an individual who suspects he may be suffering from a hearing impairment schedules an appointment for a hearing examination and finds out he is a candidate for hearing aids. This individual will turn to his major medical insurance to find out what kind of coverage he has for this costly purchase, only to be dismayed that he likely has no coverage for hearing aids. The individual may bring the issue of this coverage gap to his employer’s attention. This often is the spark that ignites an employer’s search for comprehensive hearing benefits.
Why Consider a Hearing Benefit for Employees?
Hearing is the third most common chronic health concern (behind concerns about heart health and arthritis) for millions of Americans. The number of people with hearing concerns is projected to grow as the population ages and noise pollution continues to increase.
Recent studies are debunking the myth that hearing loss is just an “old-age” problem. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in August 2010 reported that nearly 15% of school-aged children had hearing challenges and that one in five American teens has a slight hearing loss. Researchers blame prolonged exposure to noise and, possibly, personal listening devices such as iPods and MP3 players. Hearing loss among children and teens is especially worrisome, as it can adversely affect their cognitive and social development.
According to the Better Hearing Institute, one in 14 persons aged 29-40 and one in six persons aged 41-59 has a serviceable hearing loss. The University of Florida recently performed a random study on its student population; the results showed one out of five students had a hearing impairment. (Although the study didn’t suggest that these students were candidates for hearing aids at this time, it’s more likely that they will be in the future.) The largest hearing impaired group in the United States is comprised of those under the age of 65—the majority of whom are still in the workforce.
The biggest obstacle facing the hearing impaired individual is the cost of care. With every technological breakthrough or advance, hearing devices become more expensive. Providers generally price products based on revenue/profit margins with little rhyme or reason behind their methods (hence the lack of standardization in the marketplace). Because most insurances and even Medicare don’t cover hearing aids, they can be a very significant expense to the consumer ($2,000-$5,000 per hearing aid—and 70% of hearing impaired patients are fitted with two hearing aids).
It’s not hard to imagine why plan sponsors and insurance companies may be reluctant to provide hearing coverage. They know that in an industry where pricing is not standardized or consistent, claims and reimbursements can be egregious.
Providing a fully insured or savings (discount) hearing benefit plan allows employers to enhance their overall offering without assuming any risk. By bridging the gap in their current benefits package, they can provide their employees with a comprehensive approach to hearing care. Offering a standardized hearing plan can help employees navigate an otherwise fragmented industry where potential buyers’ top concerns (i.e., cost, efficacy and finding a reputable provider) are not addressed or explained.
A hearing plan can provide access to credentialed providers and brand-name technology with tangible benefits for an increasingly hard-of-hearing workforce. And as sight and hearing are commonly noted as the two natural senses we rely on most in our daily functioning, it makes sense that employers would seek to provide benefits (employer-sponsored or voluntary) aimed at preserving these.
Do Hearing Benefits Even Exist?
In the past couple of years, several states—most recently, New Jersey and Rhode Island—have passed laws mandating that if an insurance company is doing business in that state, the company must provide hearing coverage for children. In all cases, this benefit is added to the child’s comprehensive medical plan as an additional coverage. These plans usually offer a $500-$1,000 cost reimbursement with no monitoring as to whether the benefit is being properly allocated or maximized. That often leaves the family responsible for hefty out-of-pocket remainders. In addition, a handful of insurance carriers provide hearing aid benefits through select major medical plan offerings or optional riders. These plans provide varying coverage amounts typically starting at $300 and going up to $5,000.
Self-funded plans are also recognizing hearing loss among their employees and members and offering reimbursements ranging from $200 to $2,000 to offset the cost of a hearing aid(s). Again, the coverage usually lacks the proper administration and management to assure that the employee is getting the most appropriate technology for his or her needs (not every person who suffers from a hearing loss needs premium technology—the impairment may be addressed by standard or advanced-level devices at a lower cost).
Fully insured, standalone hearing benefit plans also are available to employer groups in the same fashion as their ancillary siblings, vision and dental. These plans can be relatively inexpensive (starting under $2 per employee per month) and offer flexible coverage amounts between $500 per ear and $2,000 per ear, with managed access to national networks and brand name products.
Accommodating Employees With Hearing Impairment
Studies show that hearing impairment is often linked to reduced job performance, lesser social interaction and higher stress levels in the workplace. In addition to offering a comprehensive hearing plan, there are ways employers can encourage treatment and acceptability of hearing impairment in a work environment. Many employees are reluctant to notify their employers that they are experiencing trouble hearing, as they fear jeopardizing their careers.
There are several ways to accommodate hearing-impaired persons in the workplace. The following measures published by the international nonprofit Hear-it.org can help employees suffering from a hearing loss to feel comfortable in coming forward with their impairment in order to seek treatment for a better quality of life and improved functioning:
- Draw up a hearing policy so that the employees know the company’s position on hearing impairment. Encourage employees to approach the employer if they are having problems with their hearing so corrective action can be implemented immediately.
- Show understanding toward people with hearing problems and be prepared to purchase assistive listening
devices and to make small changes in the layout of the workplace.
- Give hearing-impaired employees the opportunity to move into other work functions that do not require an optimum hearing ability.
- Inform other employees about any hearing problems in the workforce— in collaboration with the hard-of-hearing person—to prevent counterproductive reactionsand avoid misunderstandings. Also provide literature to employees on how to prevent hearing loss and steps to protect hearing.
Hearing loss is starting to occur at much younger ages than in previous generations. This is due in part to our noisy culture and present-day technology, which has made sticking things in and on our ears so popular. This greater exposure to noise has consequences. Over time, this exposure, combined with risk factors from ototoxic drugs (drugs that damage inner parts of the ear and affect hearing), secondhand smoke, diabetes, genetics, etc., can have a significant effect on our hearing and, subsequently, on our daily and professional lives. Employers have options for providing hearing coverage to their employees. It’s worth taking the time to address the adequacy of current health benefit packages to determine if a gap in coverage exists.
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