This is probably one of the least reported stories of the month, which isn’t surprising considering the Comey circus. Despite constant reports that “nothing’s getting done” in Congress because of Donald Trump, there is actually work going on. One item on the agenda is a little discussed piece of legislation known as the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act. Given the name and the far more “exciting” food fights occupying the cable media universe at the moment, you’re to be forgiven if this sounds about as thrilling as watching paint dry, but it’s actually an important piece of legislation.
What the bill seeks to do in a nutshell is to create a new over-the-counter (OTC) category of hearing aids for people with mild to moderate hearing loss. Why is this important? Because under the current maze of byzantine laws which restrict access to such products, a relative handful of companies control the entire market. And you have to go through your doctor and a pharmacy to get your hands on one. The end result is precisely what any fiscal, small government conservative should expect. Less competition, fewer options, stagnant innovation and massively higher prices. (You can be looking at a thousand dollars or more for a relatively low powered hearing aid and many insurance plans don’t cover it.)
The Daily Caller has a beautiful analogy of how this is hurting the marketplace (and patients) which relates it to… mouse traps.
Imagine if each state suddenly had laws restricting the sale of mousetraps to licensed “rodent extermination professionals.” Now add a mandate requiring license holders to undergo regular continuing education to ensure that they’re up-to-date with all the latest in spring-loading technology. Why? For safety, of course. Without their expert assistance consumers could hurt their fingers.
Yet laws like this come at cost. The quantity of mousetraps sold would go down, and the cost up, as licensed rodent killers take advantage of their newfound monopoly power. Less obviously, innovation in mousetraps would suffer, as anyone who invents a better mousetrap would have to contend with fifty different state laws and many more licensed gatekeepers just to enter the market.
As absurd as this scenario sounds, it’s the status quo when it comes to hearing aids. Across the country, state-level licensing boards restrict the right to sell hearing aids to audiologists and other “hearing healthcare professionals.”
So why would conservatives oppose such a corrective measure? Probably because it had Elizabeth Warren’s name on it. As the DC points out, one conservative group listed that as their primary reason. I’m not casting blame here, guys… believe me. Seeing Warren’s name attached to anything immediately makes me want to examine it far more closely to see where the hidden socialist goodness is hiding. But when we’re talking about this bill it’s simply not the case.
In practical terms, just think about the type of product we’re talking about here. This isn’t medicine, nor is it a device which requires surgical implants. It’s a small amplifier which you stick in your ear. It’s in the same line as eye glasses in terms of invasive attributes. Yes, you can go to a doctor for prescription glasses (and under this bill you’ll still be able to go to an audiologist for a higher end hearing aid just as you’ve always done) but if you just need a little help seeing things up close and are short on money – or insurance coverage – you can buy reading glasses over the counter at many stores. This is pretty much the same thing. Opposition claims that this would “break the bond” between patients and their doctors are equally incorrect. You can still go to your doctor should you wish, just as before. And if an OTC hearing aid doesn’t work out for you it’s likely that you’ll do just that.
This is a sensible bit of legislation which can drive down costs for consumers, spur innovation and weaken what is essentially a government endorsed monopoly at the moment. Let’s get this thing passed and onto the President’s desk.