Sounds of Progress: New hearing aid streams sound from electronic devices, but vanity and cost keep some people away

Beltone's new hearing aid, the First, can be controlled through an iPhone app, can stream music from Apple devices,
smartphones and tablets, and can be used as a microphone and recorder, enabling it to be used as an
audio teleprompter. Android compatible hearing aids should be available in February.
Beltone's new hearing aid, the First, can be controlled through an iPhone app, can stream music from Apple devices, smartphones and tablets, and can be used as a microphone and recorder, enabling it to be used as an audio teleprompter. Android compatible hearing aids should be available in February.

Pharrell is singing "Happy," rich, full-throated, in stereo and coming out of what looks like a flesh-toned lima bean tinier than a dime.

The music flows from an iPhone playlist and streams through a new-age hearing aid, which also can stream audio from iPads and other Apple devices and be controlled through an iPhone app. A version compatible with Android is expected in February.

Information

For details on groups offering financial assistance for hearing aids: * The National Institute on Deafness: 800-241-1044; e-mail: nidcdinfo@nidcd.nih.gov * The Better Hearing Institute: 800-327-9355

It also can be used as a microphone and recorder, so it can be an audio teleprompter when you give a speech. And yes, it's also just a regular hearing aid.

photo Beltone's new hearing aid, the First, can be controlled through an iPhone app, can stream music from Apple devices, smartphones and tablets, and can be used as a microphone and recorder, enabling it to be used as an audio teleprompter. Android compatible hearing aids should be available in February.

Called the First, it was developed by Beltone's Research and Development folks in Chicago and a lab in Amsterdam. The brand-new hearing aid is now being rolled out across Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia, says Beltone Tennessee Chief Executive Officer Perry Ebel.

"Hearing loss has more to do with genetics and lifestyle than it does with aging," Ebel says. "But our biggest problem is that only 25 percent of Americans who need a hearing aid wear one. They resist hearing aids as if they're the most visible sign of old age. We have to get past that somehow because it really isn't safe to drive or live alone if you can't hear fire truck sirens or a kettle boiling over on the stove."

The owner of 17 Beltone stores across the Southeast, Ebel has his share of older customers -- including 30 who are 100 years old -- but he's excited about what he sees as the fast-growing market for hearing aids among the huge demographic of baby boomers who subjected their ears to years of headphones, Walkmen and arena rock. And after that generation comes the Millenials, who likely will need hearing help due to their love of snugly placed earbuds pumping sound directly into their heads.

Ebel recalls a recent Beltone survey of American 80-year-olds that asked them which age group they relate to most -- they picked people in their 30s and 40s. Those are the decades when they had mastered youth's hard life lessons yet still had the exuberance of the prime of life. So now, even though they're 40 to 50 years beyond that time, they do not want a clunky hearing aid that screeches when a family member hugs them too hard; it's too harsh a reminder that their body and senses have aged even if their spirits are still robust.

Image consultant Darin Wright of Elea Blake Color Studio in Chattanooga understands completely.

"My dad needs a hearing aid and refuses to wear one totally for reasons of self-esteem," she says. "I understand that, for lots of American professionals, there's also a fear of looking older because that can translate into less energetic in the workplace.

"It's so strange that people will wear a silly-looking chunk of plastic stuck to the top of the ear because it's a Bluetooth. They'll wear Google Glass. But a hearing aid is not something they can see as part of their style."

Wayne Trotter, 76, of Hixson already has one of the First aids and touts its ease of use.

"The Beltone audiologist streamed my iPhone through my hearing aid and I could turn the phone on, tap the Beltone app and use the phone as a control panel to get the right setting and volume," says Trotter, a retired DuPont worker.

It also offers different settings for different acoustical environments: Church and Hunting are two of the most popular in Tennessee, according to Ebel.

"The 'Hunting' setting allows the user to hear a deer break a branch across a generous distance outdoors and the aid closes itself off at the sound of a loud gunfire blast, so it protects itself and the person wearing it," Ebel says.

Trotter found the Restaurant setting particularly useful.

"When I use the Restaurant setting, the background noise is tamped down and the conversation at the table is clear," he says. "A problem with a lot of hearing aids is all the sound in the room is amplified, which gives you too much noise."

Hearing aid help

* Medical flexible spending accounts. Hearing aid and batteries cost are reimbursable. * Medicare and Medicaid. Medicare covers nothing; Medicaid often covers hearing aids, but requirements differ state by state. * Veteran benefits. Veterans can get hearing aids if the hearing loss is because of military service or linked to a medical condition treated at a Veterans Administration hospital and also provides aids if the hearing loss interferes with a veteran's daily activities. * Federal employee assistance. Some health insurance plans pay for basic hearing aids. * Nonprofits. Sertoma provides help through its Sertoma Hearing Aid Recycling Program (SHARP); HEAR Now, sponsored by the Starkey Hearing Foundation, provides hearing aids for people with limited income. * Private insurers. Only three states -- New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Arkansas -- require that insurers provide hearing aid coverage for adults. Most insurance companies do not cover hearing aids, or only cover a small amount of the cost. * Affordable Care Act. Some states with health insurance exchanges offer some coverage. The Hearing Loss Association of America (hearingloss.org) and the Department of Health and Human Services (hhs.gov) can tell you which ones. Source: AARP

For many Chattanoogans who have been diagnosed with hearing loss, the biggest deterrent is the price of the aid, not the style nor the ease of use. Most health insurance does not cover hearing aids, or only covers a small portion of the cost.

The Affordable Care Act requires insurance to pay for hearing screenings for newborns but nothing about hearing aids. Medicare does not cover hearing aids, but Medicaid often does and, by law, must cover them for children.

photo The First hearing aid offers different settings for different acoustical environments such as Church, Restaurant, Hunt- ing. The device adjusts incoming sound to drop out unnecessary noise.

Kelly Shadrick Fox of Cleveland, Tenn., wears hearing aids and says she "couldn't make it without them," but she understands the issues some folks have with the price.

"I wish insurance would cover them, however, they are considered 'cosmetic.' I beg to differ!" she says.

Nineteen states require health insurance plans to cover some portion of hearing aids costs, but most of those only involve children. Georgia and Alabama have no hearing aid provisions, but Tennessee requires that, for children under 18, health insurance must pay $1,000 toward hearing aids. The coverage is per individual per ear every three years.

Trotter is a former veteran, but his insurance would not cover the $8,200 price of the most expensive Beltone hearing aid that he bought. For that amount, Trotter says he got a lifetime guarantee, so the hearing aid will be replaced when it wears out; he also is given a lifelong supply of batteries.

The Beltone hearing aids range in cost with most hitting about $6,000, Ebel says.

Rickey Tripp has worn hearing aids since he was 22 and remembers all the comments he heard -- actually heard -- when he first got them.

"I was embarrassed and hurt (by) all the negative comments people make about being hard of hearing," he says, "but I was hearing sounds and was able to hear my daughter say 'Daddy.'"

photo Perry Ebel owns 17 Beltone stores in the Southeast.

For Tripp, who lives in Trenton, Ga., a hearing aid was inevitable.

"With both grandparents, dad, uncle and aunt all having hearing problems, I knew it was just a matter of time," he says. "My wife gave birth to a little girl, and I slowly realized I was missing a lot of her life by not being able to hear her."

Although he has insurance, it didn't cover hearing aids, so he had to pay for the aids out of his own pocket.

"Their average lifespan is only five years and having to spend $5,000 on a set takes a hit on your budget," he says.

Chattanoogan Joe Formisano works as a landscaper on weekends and as a cook at a local school on weekdays, so he has enough energy for a crowd of men and is not worried about how a hearing aid makes him look. But his insurance does not cover the cost of even basic $2,000 hearing aid.

"If I could afford one, I would wear it and not worry for one second about the style," he said. "I'll just have to save an extra dollar per day in my checking account until I save enough money."

Contact staff writer Lynda Edwards at ledwards@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6391.

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