Column: Don’t mess with hearing aids

Amelia Hamilton

Michigan’s population is aging faster than other states and, increasingly, issues affecting seniors are becoming more important for our elected officials at the state and federal level. The fastest growing age group is 65 to 74. This puts aging policy issues, particularly those involving health care, at the top of the heap. Yet, as liberals in Washington are pushing to upend the current market for hearing aids, a medical device used disproportionately by senior citizens, Michigan’s members of Congress aren’t pushing back hard enough.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with Rep. Joe Kennedy III, is pushing legislation that would create a new category of federal regulation, lumping in complex medical devices custom-shaped for an individual’s ears with over-the-counter products already available at retailers like Wal-Mart. This is being hailed as a “disruptive” move from Washington by the tech media. In reality, it’s a profit-driven attack on doctor-patient privilege by tech companies looking to benefit from the influence of their home state representatives.

Conservative groups have spoken out vigorously against this, sending a letter last week to the Senate and another to the House this week, where the legislation is being voted on in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which includes Reps. Fred Upton and Tim Walberg. The letter, signed by 20 groups including the aging organization 60 plus and pro-consumer group American Consumer Institute, took three main issues with the proposed bill. First, it would add unnecessary federal regulation to a class of products already widely available at a low cost. Second, it would supersede state regulations designed to protect consumers, and finally, it would cut doctors and medically-trained audiologists out of the diagnosis and treatment equation.

This last point is particularly troubling. As one medical professional recently noted, “the average American who is having trouble fully hearing conversations around the dinner table is simply not qualified to diagnose and treat disorders and diseases of the ear, just because they think they know their own bodies … in April of this year, the organization for Better Hearing Centers released a number of reasons someone could misdiagnose hearing loss: misinformation, ageism, accuracy of cognitive tests, or medical crisis situations. Any number of factors can lead someone to think they are experiencing hearing loss, some more dangerous than others, therefore it is imperative it be correctly diagnosed before simply purchasing a hearing aid.”

The legislation has been called the “Bose bill” on Capitol Hill, as Bose, a Massachusetts-based company, makes devices which would be characterized as OTC hearing aids under the proposed bill. The company has already spent more than $500,000 lobbying legislators this year, including both Congressmen Upton and Walberg from Michigan, who sit on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

As conservative groups and seniors organizations have lined up against this bill, others are starting to vocalize their opposition to it as well. The Gun Owners of America are opposed, citing the potential inclusion of “hearing enhancers” used by hunters under this new category of regulation, and concerns over Warren’s use of “any pretext, however attenuated, to interfere with hunting and the exercise of Second Amendment rights.” This misguided legislation casts a wide net, to the detriment of a large and growing number of constituencies.

Michigan’s delegation is in a uniquely powerful position to oppose this legislation, and voters should urge them do to so. It’s the wrong fix for the wrong problem, at the wrong time. And the consequences, unintended or not, could cause irreparable harm.

Amelia Hamilton is a national commentator and author focusing on education, government overreach and culture. She is based in Traverse City.