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Listen up: Four ways to insure your hearing

Think a lifetime of loud noises won’t take a toll on your hearing? Well, listen up. According to a November 2011 study by Johns Hopkins researchers, one of every five Americans age 12 and up suffers from hearing loss in at least one ear. That’s 48 million of us, much more than previous estimates -- and the numbers are expected to rise.

What makes this finding more troubling is that few Americans are insured for treatment of hearing loss. While most health insurers cover an audiogram, the basic test for hearing, hearing aids -- which can correct or at least improve hearing impairment in 95 percent of cases -- usually end up being an out-of-pocket expense.

“Nine times out of 10, a hearing aid is not going to be covered by your health insurance,” says Kathleen Kuntz, director of business development for ESCO, which provides property insurance for hearing aids.

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That might not be so daunting if hearing aids weren’t so pricey. An entry-level hearing aid usually costs about $1,000; high-end, high-tech models run around $3,000. And that’s just for one ear. Seventy percent of people with hearing aids wear them in both ears.

“After age 65, your hearing aid will be one of the top five cash purchases you make,” Kuntz says.

Hearing aids aren’t the only uncovered expense. Paul Farrell, associate director of audiology professional practices at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, says a comprehensive hearing care plan should include rehabilitation services, but such hearing therapy isn't covered by Medicare or private insurance.

That doesn’t mean you need to resign yourself to a lifetime of shouting, “Can you repeat that?” Follow these four steps to get the coverage you need.

1. Investigate your current coverage. While hearing care isn’t often a standard part of private health insurance, 15 states have mandated that private health insurance policies cover hearing aids for children. Another three states -- Arkansas, New Hampshire and Rhode Island -- have required coverage for both children and adults. With all of these plans, you can select your own hearing aid; your insurer will cover a minimum benefit, and you cover the remainder of the cost out of pocket. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association provides a state-by-state overview on its website.

2. Consider supplemental insurance. Like dental and vision care, hearing care is sometimes available at an additional cost. Preferred provider networks that cover hearing services and hearing aids -- such as HearPO, HearUSA, American Hearing Aid Associates and Epic Hearing Healthcare -- are available for employers that want to supplement their health care benefits, Farrell says. You often can buy an individual policy that offers $500 to $1,000 in coverage for hearing aids.

3. Get a discount. Through a national network of audiologists, programs like HearPO offer discounts on what insurance doesn’t cover, “so it’s kind of like going to the grocery store and using a coupon on top of a lower price,” says Amber Lund, director of HearPO.

4. Insure your hearing aid. Most hearing aids come with limited warranties, but after the first year, you’ll have to replace a lost or damaged one yourself. Property insurance to cover your hearing aid for loss and accidental damage can range from $100 to $200 a year from a company like ESCO, but it can keep you from being forced to make a costly purchase unexpectedly.

Perhaps the best way to ensure your ears work well is to pay attention to your own hearing health right now. Here’s how:

1. Get your hearing checked. A basic diagnostic test often is covered by your regular health insurance, so ask your general practitioner to test your hearing when you have a checkup. Or you can take the Better Hearing Institute’s online hearing test. It’s not a substitute for proper medical care, but it may give you the impetus you need to see a doctor for further testing.

2. Lower the volume. It takes 85 decibels for eight hours to inflict lasting damage; that’s equivalent to the sound of city traffic from inside your car. An iPod turned to the loudest setting blasts 105 decibels, a power saw 110 decibels and a rock concert 115. “Any loud noise can break those inner-ear hair cells off,” Lund says. “Once they break off, they’re dead and they don’t come back.” Protect your hearing with special earplugs or earmuffs when you’re doing a high-decibel activity, and keep the sound turned low when you can.

3. Get treated ASAP. George Christ, a senior account executive at hearing insurance company Amplifon, says most Americans struggle with the effects of hearing loss for seven years before finally getting treated. But hearing loss can make some activities dangerous -- when you can’t hear emergency sirens or car horns, for instance. Plus, early treatment may slow the deterioration of your hearing.

4. Give your hearing aids a chance. Your brain learns to compensate for the sounds it’s not hearing, often soft, high or sibilant (hissing) sounds (like the letter S). Once you’re fitted with a hearing aid, your brain might not know what to do with those sounds right away. “People will say that their hearing aid doesn’t work for the first month or two, but ... your brain has to reformat those nerves to hear those sounds again in a different way,” Lund says.

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