Saving on hearing aids

You may be able to save thousands on a top-range hearing aid.
 
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01 .Hearing aids

hearing-aids-lead

One in six Australians suffers hearing loss, a figure that's expected to rise to one in four by 2050. Yet only 35% of Australians who could benefit from a hearing aid own one.

One reason may be affordability: top-end aids can cost a small fortune. Here, we've looked at ways you can save on these devices including:

A privately bought pair of basic hearing aids vary in price from about $2000-4000. They range from $4500-7000 for medium and $7500-14,000 for top-end aids. So you can potentially save thousands by shopping around.

You can also:

  • Make sure you’re not upsold an expensive model with features you don’t need. There’s an awful lot of technical jargon around hearing aids, so don’t hesitate to ask lots of questions to find out exactly why you do – or don’t – need those extra features
  • Take a friend or relative with you, as buying hearing aids from potentially pushy sales staff can be stressful. And take your time – it has probably taken years for your hearing loss to develop, so there’s no reason to make a decision on the spot.

Shopping around pays

With hearing aids, it certainly pays to shop around. We found an inner-Sydney clinic charging $14,000 for a pair of top-of-the-range Siemens hearing aids, including fitting and service, compared with $11,000 by a clinic in western Sydney. For the same devices without any service, another Sydney clinic charges $7400, while we found an online UK retailer charging about $4900 and a US online retailer selling them through eBay for $3340.

Most clinics offer a bundled price that includes a hearing test, fitting, adjustments and sometimes ongoing service. The majority of the survey respondents to an in-depth CHOICE survey of our members received such a bundled price. Bundling can make it harder to shop around, which only one in four of our survey respondents said they had done. And with an appointment usually costing about $100-250, the bundled price provides questionable value for money – the majority of respondents only went to one or two follow-up visits.

This doesn’t mean the service provided by a good audiologist isn’t valuable. It can mean you’ll end up with aids that make real improvements to your hearing and quality of life.

Are top-end aids worth it?

The main difference between top-end aids and more basic ones is better performance in noisy situations. If you need to attend meetings at work or have a very active lifestyle, or if you’re looking for extra features such as Bluetooth and better noise reduction, medium to top-end hearing aids are usually the best choice.

Whatever your needs, be wary of retailers exaggerating those needs.

“We were visited by a 94-year-old self-funded retiree who was quoted $12,780 for a pair of top-range hearing aids,” audiologist Dirk de Moore of the Bendigo Hearing Clinic told CHOICE.

“Not only was this completely overpriced, she didn’t need top-range aids. Instead, she went with mid-range aids for around $5000.”

Health insurance and tax benefits

If you have extras cover as part of your insurance, you may be entitled to a benefit for hearing aids. However, we found the benefits are nowhere close to the cost, nor do they apply if you buy from overseas. Benefits range from $200-1600, with the average being only about $700. For most of our survey respondents with extras cover, the benefit only covered only about 25% or less of the cost.

The medical expenses offset, a 20% tax offset for annual medical expenses above $2120 (or $5000 if you earn more than $84,000 as a single or $168,000 as a couple or family) in the 2012-13 financial year, may also apply.

 
 

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Four out of five hearing aids sold in Australia are subsidised by the federal government through the Office of Hearing Services (OHS). Eligible people, including pensioners and veterans, are entitled to a voucher for free hearing aids through the OHS, which can be used at a range of providers. Groups such as Indigenous Australians aged over 50 years, people under 26 and certain other groups are also eligible. Phone 1800 500 726 or 1800 500 496 (TTY) to find out more.wallet

While most of the free devices are basic, they often have features such as automatic directional microphones, noise reduction, multichannel function, telecoils (designed for hearing-aid compatible phones and assistive listening systems in public places such as theatres), wireless connectivity and basic remote controls.

But almost one in three OHS clients buys a device with some additional features – often for thousands of dollars extra – known as a top-up. Should you wish to buy a top-up hearing aid, you may be able to save a couple of thousand dollars on the retail price with an OHS voucher.

But you could still face an outlay of up to $8000 for top-end aids. Of course, top-up sales are a more profitable business model for retailers than distributing free hearing aids is. Some clinics even openly admit to pushing clients to buy a top-up for this reason. But paying extra may not be necessary, since the basic aids available are suitable for most people, and if you really need a better aid you may be able to get one for free.

Janette Thorburn from the federal government agency Australian government agency Australian Hearing told us that if you have complex needs, including severe hearing loss or difficulty understanding speech (even if it is presented at loud levels), or if you have an additional disability such as blindness or intellectual impairment that aggravates your hearing loss, you may be entitled to a mid-level aid for free from an Australian Hearing centre.

How to buy a ‘free’ hearing aid

If eligible, you’ll receive a list of hearing clinics in your local area. All offer the same free devices, but may have differences in the range and price for the top-up aids. Ask:
  • Which brands do you carry?
  • What’s the price range for a basic, medium and top-of-the-range top-up aid?
  • Can I trial the aids? 
  • For how long?
  • Are there any costs?

CHOICE member Matthew B from Perth was quoted $12,000 for a pair of top-end Oticon hearing aids by his local clinic. After some ringing around he found another local clinic offering them for $9000. He ended up buying online from a UK retailer for about $4250.

The retailer programmed the hearing aids according to Matthew’s audiogram, and he’s been very happy with them. “I can now hear perfectly in noisy situations where I had difficulty for years.” After some searching, Matthew found some local clinics that agreed to help him with servicing his aids for $100-200 per appointment, though he hasn’t needed their services so far.

If you’re thinking of buying your hearing aids overseas via the internet:
  • Have a hearing test, get a copy of your audiogram and send that through to the seller.
  • Trial the hearing aids you want with your local clinic. This is often available for free.
  • Find a local clinic that will help you with servicing your aids. Fitting and follow-up appointments are usually included in the price of locally bought aids.
  • You normally only get a one-year international warranty, as opposed to three if you buy in Australia. Check with the local manufacturer if they’ll accept the international warranty.

 In Matthew’s case, Oticon agreed to accept the international warranty. Another large manufacturer, Siemens, told us they'd do the same.


hearing-aid-statistic

CHOICE conducted an in-depth survey of our members with 525 participants and found, among other things, that a key reason people buy hearing aids is to overcome social disconnection or isolation. But the return on investment can be iffy; one in two have experienced problems with their hearing aids and almost one in six are dissatisfied with them.

About one in two of our survey participants experienced problems with their hearing aids. Common problems included feedback (whistling) and other bothersome noises. “Apart from allowing me to hear some high-pitched sounds that I could not hear before, the aids do not make a very big difference to my general hearing,” said one CHOICE member.

There are hundreds of hearing aids with differences in features, style and quality. A good audiologist can help find the best one for you. Make sure you not only receive a thorough examination but are also asked about your lifestyle and the situations in which you want to hear better, so that they can clearly grasp your requirements.

People buying a hearing aid have usually experienced hearing loss for a long time, sometimes 10 years. Over time, your ability to filter out background noise and process information may have suffered. According to Jan Fleming, vice-president of Self Help for Hard of Hearing People, “You get all those noises you haven’t heard for many years, and only after wearing the aids for six weeks your brain remembers that is a noise you can ‘throw out’.”

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