WASHINGTON — Treating hearing loss shouldn’t be such a pricey hassle. That’s the message from a prestigious government advisory group that’s calling on Medicare and other agencies to find ways to make better hearing more affordable and accessible for millions of older Americans.

One proposal: Allow over-the-counter sales of simple devices for mild hearing problems as an alternative to full hearing aids – much like consumers with vision problems today choose between drugstore reading glasses or prescription bifocals.

Thursday’s report says action is important because hearing loss isn’t just a struggle for individuals but a growing public health problem, putting untreated seniors at extra risk of social isolation, depression, even dementia.

“This is not something to be ignored,” said Dr. Dan Blazer of Duke University, who chaired the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine committee that studied the problem.

Yet only a fraction of people who might benefit from hearing aids use them and one reason is the price – averaging about $4,700 a pair including all the fitting services – the report found. Insurance coverage is very limited, and Medicare doesn’t pay for hearing aids, only diagnostic hearing tests.

Thursday, the panel urged Medicare to evaluate options to provide coverage of hearing aids and other care, while acknowledging that Congress has long refused to lift that restriction.

“We know this is a reach,” Blazer said. But, “Medicare needs to have this on their radar screen.”