As we approach the end of the year and the snow begins to flurry, Congress too is caught up in its own flurry of legislative activity. Lawmakers are working their way through a particularly full end-of-the-year legislative agenda (so perhaps more of a blizzard than a flurry), including clearing ongoing federal spending, the annual defense budget, the debt ceiling, and more.
On top of all of that, Congressional Democrats are hoping to advance President Joe Biden’s ambitious social spending bill, the Build Back Better Act (BBB) before departing for the holidays. A priority piece of legislation for Congressional Democrats and the president, this package includes a proposal to expand Medicare to hearing services and treatment.
As discussed in a previous blog, Original Medicare has statutorily excluded hearing services and hearing aids from coverage since the program’s inception in 1965. With a rapidly growing Medicare-eligible population and prevalence of age-related hearing loss, policymakers have looked to expand Medicare coverage through multiple legislative proposals over the years and are now closer than they have ever been before to achieving this goal.
In November 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives passed its version of the Build Back Better Act. While initial drafts included proposed Medicare expansion to hearing, dental, and vision benefits, Congress has decided to focus only on expanding hearing benefits in the current proposal. The process has now shifted over to the U.S. Senate, where changes are being made to strengthen the proposal and comply with specific Senate procedural and budgetary rules.
Broadly, the provision to expand Original Medicare includes coverage of hearing aids once every five years for moderately severe, severe, or profound hearing loss. The role of the hearing care professional remains essential under this proposal, as licensed physicians, audiologists, and hearing aid specialists are included to provide hearing services, including hearing aids. If the bill passes, the hearing benefit would be available after January 1, 2023.
This bill provides the framework, but lot of the details of the program would be handled at the regulatory level by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). HIA is working with Members of Congress and their staff to ensure any expansion delivers a meaningful and impactful benefit for beneficiaries and supports hearing health professionals in providing effective and innovative hearing loss treatment.
Senate Democrats are hoping to vote on the Build Back Better proposal, including Medicare expansion, before Christmas. However, this is a massive bill and details both relating to and beyond hearing health are still being worked out so the timeline for consideration may push into the new year.
As Congress continues to debate expanding Original Medicare coverage to hearing services and treatment, there are existing coverage options. Under Medicare Advantage, the privately managed health insurance program for Medicare-eligible beneficiaries, approximately 97% of enrollees are in plans that offer some type of hearing benefit. While Congress debates, it’s important not to wait to address your hearing loss. If you think you may have hearing loss or want to learn more about options to address your hearing loss, be sure to contact a hearing care professional.