A plea for coverage of child hearing aids

Law wanted: Parents ask legislators to make insurers pay for devices for the hearing-impaired.

February 17, 2000|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Scott and Emily Levin were shocked to learn a few weeks after their son Ryan was born that he could not hear noises much quieter than banging pots and pans. They were stunned again to find out that their health insurance did not cover the $5,000 in hearing aids doctors prescribed for their baby.

With a cooing 6-month-old sporting listening devices in each ear, the Owings Mills couple journeyed to Annapolis yesterday to ask the General Assembly to require health insurers to pay for hearing aids for children.

"The shock of finding out your child cannot hear you is extremely devastating," Emily Levin told members of the House Economic Matters Committee. Having to borrow the money to pay for hearing aids adds "insult to injury," she said.

The young family is part of an annual parade of Marylanders seeking legislative relief from the financial burden of health care costs that insurers refuse to cover. At least 14 bills have been introduced this session that would require health plans to pay for some new test or treatment -- including six measures aimed at helping the hearing-impaired.

However, with Maryland already requiring more medical benefits than any state in the country, legislators say they must weigh their sympathy for the plight of families like the Levins against the need to ensure that health insurance remains affordable for all.

"We do have a lot of mandated benefits," said Del. Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat and the committee's chairman. "Some of them are justified, some might not be."

Some legislated benefits, he added, stem from "the lack of foresight on the part of insurance companies" to provide the coverage on their own.

Maryland requires health plans to cover the costs of 34 treatments or tests, from hospital stays for newborns and their mothers to hospice care for the dying. If hearing aids for children are added, the state would become one of the first to require such coverage.

Large companies that are self-insured are not bound by the mandates.

Lobbyists for health plans oppose the hearing-aid bill, arguing that it could drive up insurance premiums for all.

Marta Harding of Health Insurers of America said the bill heard yesterday, sponsored by Del. Sheila E. Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat, would "let costs go out of control" because it would allow audiologists and doctors fitting children with hearing aids to collect their customary fees.

But insurance lobbyists also complained that the hearing-aid benefit has not been subject to scrutiny by the state's Health Care Commission.

Lawmakers normally will not approve a proposed health-plan mandate until its costs have been studied to see if it would push health-plan premiums above an affordability cap set by the legislature. Despite the high number of mandates in Maryland, premiums generally are not out of line with those in other states, according to a commission study.

Supporters say hearing-aid coverage is a logical step after the legislature's decision last year to include hearing screening for newborns among the five new health-plan benefits they required.

About 400 children a year are born with hearing problems, testified Deborah Doyle Allen, a Fallston audiologist. One-third are poor enough to qualify for medical assistance that could pay for hearing aids, she said, but the families of the other two-thirds have to pay for custom-fitted devices that can cost from $700 to $4,000 apiece.

Children born with hearing deficits are slow to learn to speak, and their handicap may impair learning and success in later life, experts say. Early detection and treatment of hearing problems can avoid the need for costly special education later.

"There's really no mountain our kids can't climb if given the proper aids," testified Benjamin Dubin, whose daughter Rachel has worn hearing aids since she was 3 years old. Now 23, she is a graduate student who speaks three foreign languages, he noted.

Busch, without indicating whether he supports the hearing-aid bill, noted that insurers now cover surgery to implant hearing devices in children's inner ears -- a procedure that can cost up to $40,000 -- but will not pay for external aids.

Emily Levin said the change in her son since getting hearing aids proves their worth.

"When he wakes up in the morning, and we put in his hearing aids, it's like someone turned on the lights," she said.

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