ASU Partnership Provides Free Hearing Services to Low-Income Arizonans – Cronkite News

Sherri Collins, executive director of the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, shares remarks in American Sign Language during a 2019 walk. The commission partners with the Speech and Hearing Clinic of Arizona State University to provide a year of hearing care for those who qualify. (Photo courtesy of ACDHH)

PHOENIX — When Michele Michaels became program director at the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing four years ago, she began tracking those who called for services but couldn’t afford care .

Today, his list includes over 500 names – and is being put to good use.

the commission partners with Arizona State University Speech and Hearing Clinic provide a year of hearing care for those who qualify. Patients must be 21 or older and earn less than $17,130 individually or less than $23,169 in a two-person household.

Michaels is now going through his old list and reaching out to see if those people still need help.

The Hearing Healthcare Assistance Project, as it is called, is considered a last resort for those who cannot afford private insurance and do not have government assistance.

Participants can usually schedule a consultation with the clinic within two weeks of approval. After this first appointment, patients who fall within a certain range of hearing loss will be fitted with hearing aids and referred to a hearing rehabilitation program, covered for one year.

The May launch of the project included a donation of 100 Unitron hearing aids from Optium Hearing Care, an Arizona provider that recently closed.

Michaels, who is hard of hearing, said her genetic condition worsened every year. Her experiences in the deaf and hard of hearing community have inspired her to help others.

“I definitely understand what they’re going through because I’m going through it myself,” said Michaels, whose mother is deaf.

Across the country, about 15% of adults — more than 30 million people — have some degree of hearing loss, according to federal data.

Aparna Rao poses for a portrait at the ASU Speech and Hearing Clinic in Tempe. Rao is part of an effort to provide hearing care to low-income residents. (Photo by Alberto Mariani/Cronkite News)

In Arizona, more than one million people – 17% of the population – have a hearing loss. And Native Americans and Hispanics in the state have the highest rates of more severe hearing loss, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health Insurance does not cover many essential hearing care services, including exams, hearing aids, or the hearing aids themselves, which can cost between $500 and $6,000 each, depending on the technology.

Experts estimate that only 1 in 4 adults who would benefit from a hearing aid have used one.

To make devices more accessible and affordable, Congress in 2017 asked the Food and Drug Administration to create a category of over the counter hearing aids for people with mild to moderate hearing loss.

On July 9, President Joe Biden ordered that proposed rules for private sales be issued within 120 days.

The Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and other groups have urged caution around over-the-counter hearing aids, noting the importance of having an evaluation before purchase and expressing concern about the potential of scams.

In addition to the hearing aids provided by Optium, Unitron provided hearing aids to
ASU Speech and Hearing Clinic for $200 to $250. Clinic employees are soliciting donations to provide the devices to patients free of charge.

Aparna Rao, associate clinical professor at ASU’s College of Health Solutions, is one of the leaders of the speech and hearing clinic. She and her colleagues help patients take care of their hearing aids and establish communication strategies using visual cues.

“People (who need) hearing aids just tend to withdraw, isolate themselves,” Rao said. “So helping them to defend themselves, to meet their needs… is our goal to make the nomination a success.”

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Rao said the project would not be available to the general public until Michaels’ list was reviewed. The ultimate goal of the partnership is to make hearing services accessible to everyone in Arizona, regardless of insurance or financial status.

Clyde Smith, 68, a former credit manager with a genetic condition that makes him hard of hearing, was the project’s first patient. He started having trouble hearing about 18 years ago, but first tried to mask the problem.

“If I was sitting at my desk, someone might come up behind me and say something without me hearing it. And then they tapped me on the shoulder,” he recalls. “I just wanted to blow it off and I said, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. I was deep in thought’ or something.

“You agree to nod at the right time and you try to understand the conversation.”

Smith was hesitant to be evaluated for hearing loss until he met a man who had hearing aids and didn’t seem bothered by them.

“He seemed very confident…and didn’t seem too bothered about it. I thought, ‘There’s no vanity here. If it helps me, it doesn’t really matter.

Prior to his retirement, Smith’s insurance provided Bluetooth hearing aids for $150 each out of pocket. He misplaced them during the pandemic by removing a face covering and went without because replacements cost $2,100 each under his post-retirement health plan.

After his final fitting later this month, Smith hopes to learn Spanish – once he can hear the words clearly.

Michael A. May