Transforming lives through hearing assessments and hearing aid access

Hearing loss, while most commonly known to impact aging populations is a prevalent concern across all age groups affecting millions of individuals worldwide. 

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders reports that “28.8 million U.S. adults could benefit from using hearing aids.” While hearing loss may be considered a “part of getting older” it does have significant impacts on the quality of life of those affected. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) says when unaddressed, hearing loss can limit communication and speech, cognition, education, and employment, and increase social isolation, loneliness, and stigma. 

Despite the significant impact hearing loss can cause, few individuals seek treatment. The National Council on Aging attributes this to “stigma, high costs, and a lack of accessibility.” 

GiveHearIndiana is among the majority of states that do not require hearing care expenses to be covered by health plan benefits. Adding to the challenge, Medicare doesn't encompass the expenses of hearing aids or examinations, leaving a void in coverage.

Meanwhile, Indiana Medicaid, which does include hearing services and aids in its coverage, presents a strenuous process for patients to navigate. The journey often involves navigating preauthorizations, repeated doctor visits to complete tests and forms, and having to front the cost of aids and wait for reimbursement.

With locations in Fort Wayne, Goshen, and Garrett, GiveHear is Northeast Indiana’s only non-profit audiology provider, and it’s on a mission to change this process and narrative by offering low-cost hearing aids and audiology services to those in need. 

Sarah Silva is the executive director of GiveHear and a driving force within the community. She has held the position of executive director for one year, but her commitment to GiveHear dates back to 2018, and her journey in the field of audiology began in 1998.

“The medical field has fascinated me, even as a child,” says Silva. “I fell in love with audiology, the science behind it, the patients, the stories. I’ve been so fortunate to have had opportunities that have allowed me to stay in the industry for most of my career.”

As executive director, part of her role is to help create and expand the programs at GiveHear to best meet the growing demands and needs of the community. GiveHear offers a comprehensive range of services aimed at addressing various aspects of hearing health and promoting access to auditory care.

The GiveHear staff“Paying for hearing aids out of pocket is a fair expense,” says Silva. “You’re looking at anywhere from $3500 to $8000 per pair and most people just don’t have the disposable income to cover them.”

Moreover, it's not just patients who bear the brunt of these obstacles. Healthcare practitioners also find themselves navigating a complex web of regulations and insurance processes.

“We have found that there is a big access desert in Indiana for veterans who are trying to obtain service-connected disability benefits for hearing loss-related claims,” says Silva. 

GiveHear is one of the few providers across the state that offer those evaluations. 

“The documentation end of it is really tedious for the provider,” says Silva. “It’s a time investment versus reimbursement issue. As a non-profit, we have a little more flexibility.”

Through hearing assessments, GiveHear provides individuals with a thorough evaluation of their hearing capabilities, helping pinpoint potential hearing issues early on.

“We have a couple of programs specifically for kids,” explains Silva. “Early identification for hearing loss is crucial.”

GiveHearUndetected or late-diagnosed hearing loss in infants and children has not only been known to hinder their language and communication development but could also negatively impact their social and emotional development, mental health, family relationships, educational opportunity and achievement, and later economic contribution to society. 

According to the Indiana Department of Health, before the Universal Newborn Hearing Screening was implemented, the average age of hearing loss identification was 30 months. Silva explains these tests now occur in the hospital before the baby and mother are released. If the child does not pass the initial screening they are referred for a more comprehensive test. 

“The cash price of the test can range from $750 to $1000 because it is very time intensive and the equipment is very specialized and expensive,” says Silva. “At GiveHear, this is the one program patients do not have to financially qualify for. We cap the price at $50 to encourage greater parent/guardian compliance.”

After the newborn screening is completed in the hospital, the next state-mandated hearing screening is in the first grade, which GiveHear also provides. Leaving a major gap between the next potential opportunity for diagnosis.

“We’re trying to get into preschools to do another touchpoint for screening to identify maybe a child that wasn’t screened at birth or who maybe has an acquired hearing loss,” says Silva. “The sooner we can identify the hearing loss, the sooner we can rehabilitate it and get that child on the right path and mitigate delay.”

Even with efforts to address hearing loss via early detection, there are still many who either wait too long to receive treatment or don’t at all. 

“Hearing loss and hearing aids are stigmatized in a way that maybe glasses aren’t because there’s an element of it that it’s an age thing,” Silva explains. “Unfortunately, the statistics are becoming more alarming for younger age groups.”

In addition to screening services, GiveHear also provides hearing rehabilitation and offers a hearing aid loaner program for individuals receiving cancer treatment or in hospice care. 

“We have so many nice reconditioned hearing aids in stock that we are able to loan them to patients at no charge,” says Silva. “We do this to foster communication between the patient and their family or their care team to ease communication during those challenging periods of life.”

GiveHear uses a sliding scale payment structure, serving up to 400 percent of the poverty level,  to aid in removing financial limitations as a barrier to access. On average GiveHear can offer patients hearing aids between 50-90 percent less than market cost.

“Our discounts are determined by where an individual falls within the sliding fee scale in addition to our lower cost of hearing aids,” Silva explains. “Our goal is to put the patient’s cost share within reach according to their household situation.” 

GiveHearAs part of GiveHear’s mission to continue serving the community, one aspect of the sliding fee scale is that qualifying patients ‘pay it forward’ via the Circle of Giving. 

“It's 15 volunteer hours that are contributed,” says Silva. “We do this for a couple of different reasons. First of all, as a nonprofit, our community supports us and makes our mission and our patient care possible, so it's a give-back to the community. Second, we know that patients with hearing loss, who've gone for a long period of time without treatment tend to isolate and this helps our patients re-engage with community.”

Silva further explains the Circle of Giving has been such a success among patients that they will often volunteer more than 15 hours, allowing GiveHear to bank those hours and pay them forward to other patients who may be unable to volunteer for themselves. 

Although GiveHear has made tremendous strides in improving access to hearing services throughout Indiana, Silva says they are still just scratching the surface with who they are serving. 

“My long-term goal is to continue increasing our capacity footprint because there are so many in our community that could use our services,” says Silva.

To learn more about GiveHear, click here.
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Read more articles by Desaray Bradley.

Desaray is expecting to graduate from Purdue University Fort Wayne in the spring of 2021 with a bachelor's degree in Communication: Media and Culture and a minor in Public Relations. She enjoys traveling, photography, and short story writing in her free time.