Parents Push for Bill That Would Make Kids' Hearing Aids Covered Under Insurance

When nurses informed Michael and Stephanie Wachs in January 2014 that their infant daughter Iris had failed the Texas Newborn Hearing Screening Program, they told her not to worry. There was probably just fluid in her ears. They told the Wachses to take Iris to an ear, nose, and throat doctor in a few weeks and have her checked again. The Wachses did, and they found out there was no fluid in their child's ears. Iris had permanent hearing loss. 

The Wachses also found out that their insurance company — like most others — did not cover the cost of hearing aids for children. They were considered "cosmetic." That's how Michael Wachs found himself testifying before a House committee in April in favor of a bill that would change that. Authored by Rodney Anderson (R-Irving/Grand Prairie), House Bill 2979 calls for insurance to cover the cost of hearing aids and accessories for children up to 18 years of age. Twenty states have passed similar litigation, according to the bill's proponents. 

A hearing aid alone costs about $1,500-$2,000 per ear; aids generally need to be replaced every 3-5 years as the child grows. Including accessories like batteries and the silicone ear molds that hold the aids in place cost an additional $500-$1,000 per ear. 

The expense caught the Wachses off guard. They wanted to get Iris "aided" as quickly as possible, because even slight delays can have a profound impact on a child's speech development, according to pediatric audiologists. Wachs says he was also told by experts that kids who have hearing loss — but no aids — have higher instances of depression because they feel isolated from the world.

Ultimately, it can impact a child's ability to follow along in school. Fortunately, the Wachses found an organization in Montrose, the Center for Hearing and Speech, with a United Way grant to provide hearing aids for $400 for a child's first 18 months (plus $125 every three months for ear molds). 

It took about a year for Iris to adjust to the devices; she wore a cap that looked like something an old-timey pilot might wear, to keep her from fussing with the aids. 

"She looked like a little Amelia Earhart," Wachs says. 

A similar bill was introduced in the last legislative session, but died before it made it to the House Insurance Committee. But this time, the bill at least made it at that far, and committee members heard from parents of kids with hearing loss on April 29, and, just to tug the heart-strings, they heard directly from a 13-year-old girl who's worn hearing aids since she was three and who testified that she couldn't imagine life without them. 

No one testified against the bill, but the Texas Association of Business, an employers' advocacy group, filed a memorandum opposing it, as the group opposes all insurance mandates.  (Strangely enough, the TAB endorsed Anderson, the bill's author).

"Adding new, expensive mandates to health benefit plans increases the costs for businesses and employers and adds to the growing number of uninsured in Texas," Texas Association of Business CEO Bill Hammond wrote in the memorandum. "Employers ultimately pay the high price for mandated health care benefits through higher health care premiums, co?pays, reduced wages, and benefit reductions....In the end, mandates can hurt the very people that they were meant to help — individual employees and their families."

Strangely enough, the TAB endorsed Anderson, the bill's author. 

Houston pediatric audiologist Karen Ditty says the first three years of a child's life are critical for the development of speech and language. She says Medicaid covers the costs, and that Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Texas covers up to $1,000 per ear. But parents without those options often delay their child's development during those critical years while they scrape the money together. The longer the delay, the more profound the learning disabilities, which can lead to special education classes, which wind up costing the taxpayers anyway, Ditty says. 

"We're a more conservative state, and so we really don't like to open up mandates, but even the committee that we met with at the Capitol recognized that this is a mandate that's really worthwhile," Ditty says.

That's on par with Anderson's official statement on the bill: "Not only does it prepare those children to be productive later in life, it also potentially saves the state of Texas hundreds of thousands of dollars in special education and rehabilitation costs per child."

At the April 29 hearing, Wachs read from a prepared statement that explained the anxiety that came with Iris' diagnosis: "I don’t know if any of you have kids, but the first few weeks of being a first time parent is a period that’s filled with many diapers and little sleep. You have no idea what you’re doing or how anything is supposed to be. You are?—?quite literally?—?insane....Finding out that your daughter is in danger of falling behind in school and feeling isolation before she’s three weeks old while you’re temporarily crazy is a surreal thing to hear. It’s like meeting with a very depressing fortune teller?—?and then being asked to pay a $6,000 bill."

It would have been nice if Hammond or any other Texas Association of Business representative testified as well, rather than submitting a pro-forma memo. We understand that the group doesn't like mandates, but blanket opposition eschews nuance and critical thought, and this isn't a mandate forcing insurance companies to pay for children's lollipops.  Somehow, most insurance companies have been able to categorize one of the five basic senses as superfluous, and this bill is simply an equalizer.

More than seeing Hammond testify before legislators, we'd love to see him sit down with a group of kids with profound hearing loss, and explain why they have to wait a little longer before their folks can afford to give them the cosmetic gift of sound. If he doesn't know sign-language, he'd have to write down his reasoning for them to read. Or maybe the kids could just read his lips. Either way, it's obvious what kind of ears Hammond's argument would fall on. 

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Contributor Craig Malisow covers crooks, quacks, animal abusers, elected officials, and other assorted people for the Houston Press.
Contact: Craig Malisow