National Hearing Protection Month offers reminder to focus on screenings, benefits

Baby boomers may joke about the decibel level of those rock concerts they attended years ago, but the truth is, all those years of noise abuse are taking a toll on their hearing. Combine that with younger generations blasting iPods, and it’s no surprise that today’s employers are encountering rapidly rising rates of hearing loss in the workplace.

According to the Better Hearing Institute 16.3 million people with hearing loss were in the U.S. workforce in 2010 — meaning 60% of people with hearing loss are working. Further, data from the CDC’s National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health note that work itself is one of the major culprits behind hearing loss, with 4 million people exposed to potentially damaging noise at work each day. Hearing loss also is an important cause of workers’ compensation claims, and has been linked to major health cost drivers like heart disease, depression and diabetes.  

With evidence mounting that hearing loss has a clear effect on the workplace — coupled with compliance mandates from the Americans with Disabilities Act and 19 state mandates requiring coverage for children’s hearing aids — it’s time for employers to think about strategies for amplifying hearing screening and treatment benefits.

First, it’s helpful to understand the process of diagnosing and treating hearing loss. Screening is the first step for identifying a hearing loss problem. Screening can be carried out by hearing health professionals including audiologists, primary care or ear, nose and throat physicians. Primary care docs don’t routinely screen for hearing loss, so patients need to request it.

Until fairly recently, hearing screening, diagnosis and treatment with hearing aids has not been well reimbursed by insurance. Hearing testing was often only covered as an insurance benefit when a specific problem – such as ringing in the ears – occurred. Financial barriers are slowly coming down, as the Federal Employee Health Benefit Program now encourages all of its health plan carriers to offer a hearing benefit.

Benefit strategies, while not mandatory in most states, must still make good business sense for employers. Options include discount arrangements, voluntary arrangements or integrated benefits, which offers the employee coverage for specified services or a specified dollar amount in a given time period. 

Adding a hearing benefit may be a relatively low-cost strategy to improve retention and productivity. Typical benefits may include an allowance of $1,000-$1,500 in hearing aids per ear every three years, plus coverage of diagnostic testing and professional fitting.  Uptake estimates range from .31% per year to 1.34% per year, depending on the age of the covered population and the relative value of the benefit.

Employees with mild hearing loss can often be helped by making an accommodation in the workplace. For example, some accommodations might include moving the worker to a quieter location, installing amplifiers on the phone, or increasing use of written communications. For employees with more serious hearing loss, amplification through hearing aids may be needed. Hearing aids come in several price ranges and varieties featuring different designs, technologies and special features (such as the ability to screen out noise). Finding the right device and fit is critical to ensure effective use, and these services should be part of covered treatment.

Ultimately, addressing hearing loss will improve the health and productivity of workers and will improve employee job performance. Hearing health improvement is an important, attractive and effective employee talent recruitment and retention strategy in this era of the aging workforce.

Liza Greenberg is a health policy consultant in Washington, D.C. Her clients include the Hearing Network Alliance and health insurance trade associations. October is National Hearing Protection Month.

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