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NEWS | Nov. 8, 2018

'Retiree-at-Cost' hearing aids: Hearing birds for the first time again

By Mr. David M White (Army Medicine)

Sharon Holmes holds the hearing aid battery from Terrie Ziegler, audiologist at Eisenhower Army Medical Center. Ziegler fit Holmes' new hearing aid Oct. 18 in EAMC's Eyes Ears Nose Throat clinic. Holmes is one of the first EAMC beneficiaries to benefit from the Army's newly expanded "Retiree-at-Cost" hearing aid program that allows spouses of retirees to receive hearing aids at cost. (Photo by David M. White/RELEASED) (Photo Credit: David M White)​

Perhaps you ask your waiter to repeat the specials because you didn't hear them. Perhaps you find yourself staring at the lips of the person talking to you, trying to guess what they're saying. Perhaps someone asks why your TV is turned up so loud. 

Perhaps your hearing has softly, unknowingly, left you in the quiet of hearing loss.

'I was at my third great-grandchild's birth," said Sharon Holmes, 74. "At Christmas with all those children, I just have to sit and smile" because I can't hear them well enough.

"I knew my hearing was pretty bad," she said.

The Army has long had the "Retiree-at-Cost Hearing Aid Program" that provides retired service members with hearing aids at cost, saving them thousands of dollars on some of the most-sophisticated hearing devices on the market. The recent National Defense Authorization Act expanded that program to include spouses of beneficiaries, such as Holmes, who is the wife of a soldier who retired in 1991.

Across society, hearing loss is an increasingly important public health issue.

About 2 percent of adults aged 45 to 54 have disabling hearing loss, according to National Institutes of Health's National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. The rate increases to 8.5 percent for adults aged 55 to 64. Nearly 25 percent of those aged 65 to 74 and 50 percent of those who are 75 and older have disabling hearing loss.

"About 28.8 million U.S. adults could benefit from using hearing aids."

Despite the large need for hearing aids, the majority of the population doesn't take advantage of the technological advances in assistive hearing devices.

According to the NIDOCD, "among adults aged 70 and older with hearing loss who could benefit from hearing aids, fewer than 1 in 3 has ever used them. Even fewer adults aged 20 to 69, approximately 16 percent, who could benefit from wearing hearing aids have ever used them."

Eisenhower Army Medical Center's audiology clinic recently opened its doors to spouses of beneficiaries, helping bring them back from the quiet of hearing loss.

"We fit about 30 patients with hearing aids per month," said Dr. Mark Little, Au.D., chief of audiology at EAMC. "We can easily double our capacity." Recently, clinics at Fort Stewart and Fort Benning had to suspend their program due to over-booking.

Because the U.S. government is the world's largest purchaser of hearing devices, said Little, we can provide the best hearing aids on the market at a savings of up to 80 percent over commercial hearing aid professionals. For example, one of the most well-respected manufacturer's top-of-the line model has a retail list price between $4,100-$5,800 per ear. Through the "Retiree-at-Cost" program, those prices drop to between $700-$900 per set, depending on the device options, according to Terrie Ziegler, a audiologist at EAMC.
Most insurance companies and TRICARE do not cover hearing aids or, in some cases, the benefit is severely limited. 

The audiology clinic at EAMC is a direct-referral clinic, meaning patients do not have to go through their primary care provider to get an appointment.

An avid golfer, Holmes is excitedly waiting on her hearing aid fitting. Delivery takes two to three weeks after the initial testing and fitting has been completed. Once the device arrives and final adjustments have been made, she will be back on the golf course, out of the quiet of hearing loss, listening to birds she doesn't know she hasn't been hearing.​

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