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Hearing, an unregulated industry

5 min read
8 Dec 2015

The market for hearing services in Australia was estimated to be $729million 2012, and it’s expected to grow by almost 6% between 2013 and 2017. With these sorts of figures, and the importance of hearing to health and wellbeing, you might think the industry is heavily regulated; this article explores the facts.

Hearing tests are not always with a qualified audiologist

In shopping malls and on street corners, signs declaring free hearing tests are nearly as ubiquitous as vision tests. Unlike optometrists and ophthalmologists who assess vision, however, you may not get tested by an audiologist when you book in.

Fact: you may not be getting a trained health professional at all. With a heavily subsided federal programme, kick-backs to hearing aid suppliers and predatory behaviour, the consumer needs to be fairly savvy to ensure they get what they are paying for when it comes to hearing health.

Hearing loss affects 1 in 6 Australians

The hearing industry is unregulated

The fact that the hearing industry is unregulated is generally unknown. In reality, this leaves the door open for private clinics, many of which are owned by manufacturers of hearing aids, creating a severe conflict of interest.

Privatisation can add pressure to medical professionals to sell to you

With no regulations, it’s difficult for you to know that the information you are receiving is honest. This is made worse when hearing equipment can be charged into the thousands, potentially from an initial test from someone unqualified. Even honest and well-meaning audiologists can be placed under pressure to sell certain makes and models of hearing aids to you.

60% of people over 60 having hearing problems

The price of hearing

According to a heavily-redacted Department of Human Services report (for commercial-in-confidence reasons), demographic and socio-economic changes are projected to increase privatised providers by around 7.1 per cent in the financial years between 2013 and 2017.

Related: Does Medicare or private health insurance cover hearing aids

Who can receive free assistance?

As it stands, the following groups are eligible for free hearing tests, as well as hearing aid and battery subsidies:

  • Children
  • Adults up to the age of 26
  • Those who hold concession cards
  • Department of Veterans’ Affairs card holders (specific stipulations)
  • Those on sickness or disability allowances from Centrelink
  • Those who are dependent on someone who qualifies for the above benefits
  • Defence Force members
  • Clients of a government vocational rehabilitation services
  • Indigenous peoples over the age of 50 or who are participating in an approved program

In addition to these eligibility requirements, the government has a voucher system. The Department of Human Services report notes that eligibility has tightened up in recent years by issuing fewer vouchers since 2012, sending more consumers into the arms of private providers.

The issuing of vouchers is expected to decline by 5.5 per cent between 2013 and 2017.

Some of the people in the above groups require a voucher to be issued by the Office of Hearing Services in order to be eligible for subsidies, as well as the following:

  • Adults who meet certain criteria with significant hearing loss and a profound impairment to communication
  • A person who is eligible for the voucher program and also lives in a remote Australian location
  • Recipients must be Australian citizens or permanent residents of Australia.

The proposal to privatise services

The federally-backed hearing support organisation is Australian Hearing, and they are a full-service provider. However, the Australian government has flagged the hearing services industry for privatisation, not unlike our dental system. This will affect untold numbers of Australians, including deaf and partially deaf children who rely on support in their education.

Which way is the political wind blowing?

Several consumer advocate groups have expressed concern at the prospect of scrapping socialised hearing assistance programs. The heavily-subsidised program is almost universally lauded by peak-bodies, who understand that our ability to hear effectively not only facilitates communication generally, but also our social lives, our employment prospect and even our safety. Consider the following sounds that we tend to take for granted, but would suddenly miss in their absence:

  • Car horns
  • Smoke alarms
  • Ongoing or approaching traffic
  • Warning shouts
  • Alarm clocks
  • Radio warnings
  • Important verbal information

Some of these things can and do save lives. It follows that there should be an implied right to them if the existing criteria is met. Regardless of the ultimate decision around the hearing industry, those with compromised hearing should seek to protect themselves against unnecessary costs.

Ear to the ground for a great deal? Our private health insurance comparison tool is up to date and ready to go

How to avoid unnecessary costs

Finding a health insurance provider whose extras or ancillary benefits cover items related to hearing loss is a good way to avoid spiralling costs if you are not entitled to free services. If hearing-related rebates are important to you and your family, it’s worth comparing the market. Deaf Australia, an information and support group who advocate for the hearing-impaired, say auditory extras can be expensive, so comparing could help you save. It is also a big unknown whether or not a privatised system would be incorporated into the National Disability Insurance Scheme once the system is rolled out.

Watch out for misleading salespeople

Even if you are not eligible for subsidies from Hearing Australia, you can still investigate a provider’s reputation, find out if they have conflicts of interest, and seek a second opinion. You can ask very specific questions during your hearing tests, such as the tester’s qualifications, whether they work for commissions and what the obligations are to purchase certain products in exchange for the tests. With just a few tough questions, you can be assured that providers are looking out for your health.

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