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A Hearing-Aid Oligopoly Is Trying to Strangle Cheap Over-the-Counter Competitors

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About one-third of Americans between the ages of 65 and 74 have lost at least some of their hearing, and after 75 that rises to nearly half. Most of these people don’t get hearing aids; indeed, among those with hearing loss age 70 or older, less than one-third have ever even tried hearing aids. Some of these older people are probably stubborn or in denial, but the biggest obstacle is cost. Hearing aids cost a fortune, and Medicare doesn’t cover them. Typically, a pair of hearing aids will sell for $4,000–$6,000.

Congress did something about this in 2017 when it passed a bipartisan bill allowing for the over-the-counter sale of hearing aids, which, thanks to the advent of smartphones and other advances in consumer electronics, will cost perhaps as little as one-tenth as their prescription counterparts. The Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act required the Food and Drug Administration to issue regulations for this new category of hearing aids within three years.

The prescription hearing-aid industry, led by an oligopoly known as the Big Five that controls more than 90 percent of the market for hearing aids, failed to stop the bill. But according to a report from the offices of Senators Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Grassley as well as a letter they sent to FDA Commissioner Robert Califf—both released Thursday morning—the Big Five are now flexing their muscle to protect their profits and limit how many hearing-impaired people will be able to use the new over-the-counter products.

In October, more than a year past its deadline, the FDA finally announced its proposed rule, kicking off a four-month public comment period. A final rule is expected soon. According to Warren and Grassley’s report, during the now-closed comment period the Big Five ginned up more than 400 letters—40 percent of all public comments submitted to the FDA—that sought to limit in various ways how widely the over-the-counter can be marketed. The wording in large passages........

© New Republic

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