A Taunton mom was among a group of advocates who pushed for a children’s hearing aid bill that was approved last week by the Legislature and is now under review as Gov. Deval Patrick decides on whether to sign it into law.
Known as House Bill No. 52 and titled “An Act to Provide Access to Hearing Aids for Children,” the bill has been kicked around in the State House for three legislative sessions. If signed into law, it would mandate that private health insurers provide coverage for up to $ 2,000 of the cost of any single hearing aid for minors up to the age of 21 every 36 months.
“This bill definitely makes it a lot easier for families to make sure their children have access to hearing aids early on in life,” said Kim LaBrecque, of Taunton, who spent days at the State House last week seeing the bill through as an executive board member for the Massachusetts Hearing Aids for Children Coalition (MassHAFCC). “A law passed in 1998 provided newborn hearing screenings. This bill bridges that gap to not only tell families their children have hearing loss and and now being able to tell that they have coverage, instead of just handing them a bill without any help on how to pay for it.”
Out of 80,000 live births in the state each year, 200 are diagnosed with hearing loss and approximately 150 require the use of costly hearing aids, according MassHAFCC. Hearing aid units cost at least $ 2,500 for each ear, and must be replaced every three-to-five years, the organization said.
The hearing aid bill also requires the state to provide coverage for hearing aids for children of state employees.
The bill is currently under review at the governor’s office, and Patrick has 10 days to sign it from when the bill was passed on Thursday by the House and the Senate, said Alec Loftus, a spokesperson for the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services. However, MassHAFCC expects Patrick to sign the bill into law.
LeBrecque, who is raising a 3-year-old daughter who was diagnosed with moderate bilateral hearing loss as a newborn, said she became involved about 2½ years ago after realizing how many families struggle to afford hearing aids for their young children. She is one of seven mothers who are on the board of directors for MassHAFCC.
“The mothers involved have been working feverishly and tirelessly with legislators and leadership at the State House to really make this bill a reality,” LeBrecque said. “It’s been an extremely rewarding experience. We’ve gotten so far. I’m very proud that I can turn around and see that other children can have hearing aids early on. It makes a difference.”
Several business groups and coalitions advocating on behalf of insurance companies opposed the hearing aid mandate, saying there is already too much state-mandated benefits, with 12 cents of every dollar paid for health insurance as the result of a state mandate. The Division of Health Care Finance and Policy conducted an actuarial report on the effect the mandate would have on the cost of health care insurance, concluding that anywhere from 2 cents to 7 cents will be added to the premiums for insurance policy member per month, which is “no more than a 0.015 percent increase” in insurance premiums, according to the estimate.
“At a time when employers and the state are struggling with rising health care costs and the Legislature is considering payment reform legislation to contain the cost of health care, adopting new mandated benefits runs counter to those efforts,” said officials from Associated Industries of Massachusetts, Mass. Association of Health Plans, Health Service Administrators, Retailers Association of Mass., Mass. Association of Health Underwriters, and other groups, in a letter to legislative leaders. (The state healthcare plan, Mass Health, already covers hearing aids 100 percent, LeBrecque said.)
On the other hand, MassHAFCC says that the hearing aid bill is not a typical mandate because it creates savings in medical expenses associated with untreated hearing loss, in speech and language services (which insurance already covers, the group points out) and in public education costs for special education services associated with students who lag behind in speech, language, reading and math because of late access to hearing aids.
“Few mandates affect the whole child as significantly as does House Bill 52,” MassHAFCC said in a statement.
There are at least 18 other states that have passed such laws requiring health insurers to cover hearing aid costs, including all the other New England states, while Tennessee and Oregon were the latest states to adopt similar mandates in 2011.
One of the lawmakers who co-sponsored the Massachusetts hearing aid bill was State Rep. Patricia Haddad, D-Somerset, who represents part of Taunton. Haddad said the bill would have a miniscule effect on insurance premiums, but would save state residents in potential future tax costs.
“I can’t imagine anybody objecting when they see the true cost,” Haddad said. “People have the impression this is going to add a lot of money (to insurance payments). It’s not. It’s two-to-seven cents. If a child’s ability to learn and mature is not worth two-to-seven cents, I’d feel terrible about that. The other thing is to try to be forward thinking and realizing that two or three cents now saves hundreds of thousands of dollars in the future in special needs cost.”
Haddad noted that she met one family with three children who required hearing aids, and that this bill would help ease the burden for all parents who have children who need hearing aids.
Haddad also tipped her hat to the mothers behind MassHAFCC.
“I congratulate the mothers for their perseverance,” she said. “All along the way they were very helpful. They just realized the best way to do this is just to tell their stories.”
MassHAFCC is currently urging supports to call Patrick’s office to ask him to sign the hearing aid bill.
For more information on MassHAFCC, go to www.masshafcc.blogspot.com.
— Material from the State House News Service was used in this report.
Contact Marc Larocque at [email protected]