AUGUSTA — A new law going on the books New Year’s Day will make Maine just the fifth state to require private health insurers to provide hearing aid benefits to their subscribers.

The law, the result of a bill sponsored by Rep. James Handy in 2019, requires private health insurers to cover hearing aids up to $3,000 per ear every three years.

As many as 173,000 Mainers have some level of hearing impairment, according to a report by the state’s Bureau of Insurance in 2014. That was the year lawmakers defeated a similar bill that would have required insurance policies written for Mainers to include a hearing aid benefit. State law previously required coverage for children under the age of 18 and capped the insurer’s expense at $1,400.

Maine  joins Arkansas, Illinois, New Hampshire and Rhode Island in requiring hearing aid coverage for both children and adults, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

But all four states have lower benefit amounts than set out in Maine’s law.

“People who have hearing impairments tend to isolate themselves and that can lead to dementia and Alzheimer’s, but I also heard from people who had left the workforce because of hearing loss,” said Handy, a Lewiston Democrat. “So to me, it is also a workforce development policy.”

He pointed to a recent study from Johns Hopkins University that shows links between hearing loss and cognitive decline and dementia.

“Insurance coverage is not keeping pace with what we are discovering about the impact of hearing loss on an individual’s health,” Handy said.

Medicare does not cover hearing aids or exams for fitting them, but some Medicare Advantage Plans may offer hearing benefits.

Handy learned of the issue while campaigning door-to-door for the Legislature in 2018.

“This is really the magic of how campaigning works,” he said. Later, Handy was confronted with his own hearing loss and learned that his insurance plan would cover only up to $1,000 for hearing aids.

He said some people need hearing aids that cost as much as $4,000 each, and many simply go without.

“The insurance plans that are out there range from absolutely no hearing coverage to covering testing and evaluation and very few cover hearing aid costs and usually only up to $1,000,” Handy said. “So the out-of-pocket cost can be pretty significant.”

Maine, the oldest state in the nation, is increasingly dependent on older workers, including many retirees returning to the workforce, and hearing adequately is important for communication and job safety.

“Nobody should be forced out of the workforce because of a hearing impairment,” Handy said.

Handy said that the 2014 report also determined that requiring hearing aid coverage could push insurance premiums up by as much 47 cents a month or $5.64 a year for up to $6,000 of hearing aid coverage.

Handy’s bill passed without opposition in the Legislature. It was signed by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills in June.

The law will cost state government about $215,000 a year to provide the hearing aid benefits under state employees’ health insurance plans.

Opponents to the new mandate, including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said the requirement will push up the cost of insurance premiums, making plans too expensive for some small businesses that provide health insurance to employees.

“As our organization has said before this committee in the past, mandated benefits, no matter how well-intentioned, serve no purpose if they push health insurance premiums beyond the reach of either the employer or the employee,” Peter Gore, the chamber’s executive vice president, said in testimony to the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

Karen Fraser, the director of the Maine Department of Labor’s Bureau of Rehabilitation Services, told lawmakers that her agency will help those with hearing loss gain access to work or maintain employment, including providing hearing aids, but said that demand often outstrips available resources and the agency currently has waiting lists for those needing hearing aids.

In written testimony, Fraser said that during the 2018-2019 federal fiscal year her agency spent $546,000 on hearing aids for some 265 workers in Maine.

While the agency took a neutral position on the new law, Fraser said her bureau “sees firsthand the benefit of employment for individuals with hearing loss; it helps maintain connections to the community; increases self-sufficiency and decreases dependence on other support programs.”

Correction: This story was updated at 11:24 a.m. on January 3, 2020 to clarify provisions of the law requiring private health insurance companies to cover the cost of hearing aids.


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