Today, Americans can buy cheaper hearing aids for mild-to-moderate hearing loss without a prescription from a range of common retailers, including Walgreens, CVS, and Walmart—finally making the critical health devices more affordable and accessible to the estimated 28.8 million adults who could benefit from them.
The US Food and Drug Administration estimates the change could lower the average cost of obtaining a hearing aid by as much as $3,000. As of today, Walgreens is selling an over-the-counter model similar to hearing aids that range from $2,000 to $8,000 per pair at specialty retailers for just $799 per pair on its shelves, the White House said Monday. Likewise, Walmart said that, as of today, it is selling over-the-counter hearing aids ranging from $199 to $999 per pair, which are comparable to prescription hearing aids priced at $4,400 to $5,500 per pair.
The move is years in the making. In 2017, Congress passed a bipartisan proposal directing the FDA to set rules for selling over-the-counter devices. But the rules were slow to come. In July 2021, President Biden signed an executive order spurring the FDA to produce the rules, which the agency finalized in August of this year.
“Hearing loss is a critical public health issue that affects the ability of millions of Americans to effectively communicate in their daily social interactions,” FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said in August. “Establishing this new regulatory category will allow people with perceived mild to moderate hearing loss to have convenient access to an array of safe, effective and affordable hearing aids from their neighborhood store or online.”
In the past, the barriers to hearing aids were high for many Americans. They required a medical exam and for patients to obtain a prescription or be fitted by an audiologist.
The Hearing Industries Association, a trade group that represents hearing aid manufacturers, previously worked to undermine the effectiveness of new over-the-counter devices, according to a Congressional investigation. Though HIA now says it supports the rule, it still pushes for people to seek specialty care for diagnosing hearing impairments and fitting and using devices.
“Hearing loss is unique to each person, and most do not know if their condition is mild, moderate, or greater, caused by another medical issue or something as simple as ear wax,” HIA President Kate Carr said in an August statement. “HIA supports the final rule and recommends that the best treatment for hearing loss involves seeing a hearing professional.”
While independent experts noted that there’s nothing wrong with consulting an expert for those who can, they also said consumers could navigate the situation on their own. There are also resources online to help people through the process. For instance, the Hearing Loss Association of America, a consumer advocacy group, provides a tip sheet on who might consider an over-the-counter hearing aid and what features to look for when buying one. Tips for the latter include looking for generous return policies, convenient connectivity, adjustable amplification, water/sweat resistance, and a long-lasting or rechargeable battery.